Recently I watched an interview in which a celebrity said something that lots of people will support. He boasted that he had “zero regrets” about anything that he’d done in the past. Many self-help gurus will also approve of this approach; they’ll tell you that harboring regrets about the past is useless and self-destructive, and that you should let go of them. Aside from the fact that I know of no technique for “letting go” of any kind of feelings just because they’re inconvenient, I’m also not at all convinced that our regrets serve no positive purpose.
When I was thirteen years old, my classmate Gene fell in love with me and tried to seduce me into having sex with him. I didn’t understand what he wanted, but my parents and teachers did, and pressured me to reject him. Initially I resisted, because I also had feelings for him, feelings that I didn’t understand and couldn’t put into words.
But the intensity of his passion alarmed and confused me, and in the end, coldly and harshly, I dropped him. Soon afterward, I moved with my family five hundred miles away, and I never saw him again. Through the years I often wondered what had become of him, and when the internet came into existence, I attempted to locate him, but without success. Last year I happened to run into another classmate from that time, and she told me that he had died almost thirty-five years ago, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
I will always feel regret and sorrow whenever I remember Gene. It’s not that I torture myself with pointless guilt and shame. I can have compassion for the boy I was then—naïve, sexually confused and struggling to find his way in a pre-Stonewall environment that was intensely homophobic. But my remorse isn’t touched by any of these thoughts.
And it’s right that it isn’t. I don’t want to hurt other people, but my memories of Gene remind me that I’m capable of hurting them intensely, especially when I’m afraid and threatened. They also show me that social pressure can coerce me into doing things that in my heart I know are wrong.
It’s uncomfortable and humbling to face these truths about myself, but it’s important that I do it. Blithely claiming that you have “zero regrets” probably means that you’ve armored your ego against any idea that you aren’t perfect, and that you’re clueless about your shadow side. Our regrets puncture our comfortable illusions about ourselves. They shine a light on our weaknesses, our blind spots, our capacity for cruelty; and it behooves us to see these things if we want to move closer to being the kind of people we aspire to be.
We not only have regrets about the ways that we’ve treated others, but also about the ways in which we’ve let ourselves down. Over the years, I hope that I’ve become a more authentic human being, but that growth entails that I also feel regret whenever I remember the times that I lacked the courage to live authentically—when I buried my true feelings, when I cared too much about what others thought, and when I played it safe instead of taking risks that I ought to have taken.
It seems that having regrets is an unavoidable byproduct of growing emotionally and spiritually. At the time that I rejected Gene, I had little comprehension of the pain that I was causing him. It was at least fifteen years later—after I had come out as gay and been rejected in love myself—that I finally understood how much I’d hurt him. I can’t delete what I’ve done in the past, but it may be that my regrets can help me to change who I am going forward.
If you google “regret,” you’ll find a lot of talk about how useless that feeling is and how we should all get rid of it. Standing alone and far away from that crowd (where he often stood), you’ll also find Henry David Thoreau. He offered this advice: “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” And to live afresh is to be morally renewed.