Members of the CEM core group discuss Regret as part of our occasional series named Coming to our own emotional rescue. We welcome responses to these reflections, which we have in the past published as guest posts. If that is of interest then write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org , or leave a reply in the comments.
I feel like this is a near-constant emotion I’m having to deal with and something I have to continue to challenge myself to not let it overcome whatever you may or may not have done. It’s ever-present for me considering I what I know and continue to learn about our multiple and intersecting crises on this planet. I know regret is a slippery path that can spiral and cause guilt and shame for myself or others – especially when it comes to committing to something and then failing to deliver for whatever reason or no reason at all.
But then, we’re not perfect and we need to give ourselves a break and make sure we’re able to care for our own wellbeing to continue to do things in this space without burning out or losing motivation to continue pushing for some greater level of action or ambition. Regretting nothing is also probably not a great approach either as it’ll make it difficult to acknowledge where mistakes have been made and how to learn to do things better next time. So a little regret is probably a good thing if it can lead to reflection, learning and change.
There is a saying, “Better to regret something you’ve done, rather than something you didn’t do”. And on the scale of a single ordinary human life, this is probably good advice. Get out there, try things, make ordinary human mistakes. It’s unlikely that anything you do is going to catastrophically affect billions of lifeforms for tens, or hundreds of thousands of years.
We seldom stop to consider it, but the impact of what humans are doing to the planet will be felt for many millennia to come, even in the case of the best outcomes we can imagine as I write this in early 2022. All the coral, all the fish, birds, insects, plants, that have lost, are losing, will lose their homes. The species that are representations of lineages that are millions of years old, snuffed out.
As a species, humanity seems scarcely to have realised what it has done – in the slow motion car-crash of the Anthropocene, only a minority have had the “oh ****” moment – that slow motion sensation of your feet slipping from under you, the bike wheel losing traction, the precious fragile object slipping from your grasp to land on a hard floor…
I wonder then, is it possible for humans to experience regret on a collective scale? To see what is already lost, what could still be fought to be saved, to learn the lessons of a deadly civilisational misadventure and change course?
I wonder if, in decades and centuries to come, humans will rue the decisions their forebears made over the last century or so – to ignore the warnings from scientists, to pursue economic growth and wealth accumulation at the cost of everything else? Will the records of what we have done even survive?
In the same way that a person can learn from the mistakes and regrets of their youth to gain wisdom, it’s possible that humanity, collectively chastened by an increasingly hostile planet and the loss of so much of the life they shared it with, might learn to tread more lightly, and live more fairly. The healing power of regret? Maybe…
Everybody has regrets – and I don’t believe anyone over the age of 5 who claims they have none. Regrets are different from mistakes. You can make a mistake and not necessarily look back on it in the same way as a regret. A regret lingers. Regret is also different from disappointment. We might be disappointed about an outcome we had no control over. We regret things where we had agency.
Regrets often sit at a juncture, or at least that how it looks in retrospect. ‘I should have done x not y’. Even the regret-denialists might acknowledge that they regret not doing things. Not speaking up, not acting, not taking that path – such boldness regrets are common. I have my own collection. Speak to an activist, particularly those older, and they might add ‘not acting sooner’.
As with any emotion, what we do with it is the key to making it useful. Regrets can serve as decision-making tools, guiding our choices in the future: ‘Next time, I will….’. I’ve certainly course corrected when presented with a similar situation. Indeed, I’ve put myself in similar situations again soon to act differently and ease the regret-pang. But maybe that only works with some regrets, those that repeat in some form, however stretched. The most foundational regrets, those that really gnaw, might seem too unique and too far in the past to redress. I also wonder if regret can mingle with fantasy, and memories of watching Sliding Doors. Sometimes there isn’t another fabulous version of our life.
Can there be a collective regret? If so, it must sit alongside the more-developed notion of collective guilt, used by those who studied societies in the wake of genocide and, increasingly, climate change. If regret comes with an element of hindsight, then the climate crisis brings that process forward. We already know, we already have the information to make choices and decades to look back on. Regret might help if it brings us to acknowledgement, but we quickly need to turn that into responsibility.
Regret. Hmm. If there’s one thing I regret it’s joining the core group after all the easy emotions were used up. Broadly speaking, I regret things fleetingly and sparingly. I’m more of a letting-goer.
When I was in the throes of a climate activist burnout, and graduating awkwardly from ‘youth activist’ to ‘activist’, there was a period when I was running on the fumes of regret. ‘If I take a step back’, I reasoned, ‘the climate will suffer and I will regret it. The feeling of regret will be worse than whatever I am feeling now.’ What followed shortly after was the inevitable burning out process of stepping back and having to deal with that feeling of regret and shame even though it wasn’t possible for me to keep going.
That helped to form this opinion. I don’t think climate regret needs to be for ‘the little people’. I think we can bumble along, forgiving ourselves for our past indulgences in unnecessary short haul flights, our unsent MP letters, our ‘lunching out’ at activist meetings. Reflection is good, but so is acceptance – reflect, accept, adjust. For us, there is only the trying – the rest is none of our business*. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us*.
This is a TS Eliot quote, shamelessly co-opted from an email a friend (Alison) sent me – my quoting ability is not usually so high brow
Lord of the Rings this time : Frodo regrets living through the war of the Ring. Definitely more my speed.