The Phony Wisdom of “No Regrets”

A couple weeks ago, on the occasion of New Year’s Eve and with resolutions in mind, The New York Times’s morning newsletter included a link to an article from a couple years ago called “The Best Advice You’ve Ever Received (and Are Willing to Pass On). The author, David Pogue, whom I had understood to be generally intelligent, recounts that he had, some years earlier, “crowdsourced” a book by posing questions to Twitter and publishing their best responses. One of those questions was “What’s your greatest regret?”

Pogue finds this response – that regret itself is the only regrettable thing since, after all, “you made the best decision you could with the information you had at the time” – profoundly liberating. It changed his life! Alas, this profound sounding advice is, in many if not most applications, utter bullshit.

My working definition of enlightenment, if such a thing exists or is even possible, is something like this: To see life, the world, Being, as it really is, in all its beauty and horror, and still live with serenity and joy. While I am reluctant to say anything like I am seeking enlightenment, I would not hesitate to say that I want to see the world as it really is and that I want to be serene and joyful. These two things often seem incompatible. Indeed it may be that life itself, let alone a joyful and happy life, requires falsehood. Even still it may be worth taking on the fakest of them, especially those which, for some people anyway, appear to be profound.

Let’s consider three parts of this advice regarding regret, both within and outside the context of recovery. 1) Regret is a waste of time because 2) You did the best you could 3) with the information you had at the time. The third point is of course key because it allows that you might have made a better decision if more information had been available to you. It is also the easiest to disprove, at least in its most literal sense

Sure, there are instances where lack of information was behind the decision that formed into a regret. Maybe you regret not buying stock in Amazon back in 1998, but who could have known then what would happen to that book store on this still-new thing called the internet? Or more recently, maybe you regret losing a chunk of your retirement after watching the once respectable actor Matt Damon pitching Bitcoin during the Super Bowl. But the first case fails as an example of regret precisely because the decision not to invest in Amazon can be easily be dismissed by lack of information. Only someone who in fact did have good information – an investment banker, say, who had full access to Amazon’s financial information and should have known to invest but didn’t – is likely to really be troubled by feelings of regret. And an honest person in the second situation would acknowledge that lack of information wasn’t really the culprit in the potentially-regret-causing decision but rather willful ignorance and magical thinking encouraged by laziness and greed.

It’s meaningless to say that you don’t regret something that wasn’t eligible for regret to begin with. No one regrets what is not regrettable. A person may be sad, even extremely sad or depressed that he missed his daughter’s wedding because he was in a coma but if he regretted it we would think he was either using language incorrectly or blaming himself unduly. Because the essence of regret, the core of its meaning, involves the knowledge that we could have acted differently and didn’t, that we were responsible.

But it would be too easy to dismiss the subject on these grounds alone. We can assume that David Pogue read the other responses to his question and that they likely included the kinds of things that invariably show up studies on regret, things like regret for bullying another person or standing back idly while another was bullied; spending too much time working and not enough with family; letting the love of your life walk away because you lacked the courage to tell them you loved them. Or, if you’re an alcoholic – part of the reason I was struck by this particular platitude is that I had previously heard it stated almost verbatim in an AA meeting – punching a cop after being pulled over for suspected DUI.

Alcoholics and addicts are exceptionally and intensely well acquainted with the seemingly insurmountable experience of regret. And just as every alcoholic/addict has made countless vain attempts to either manage or quit their drinking/using before coming to a 12 step meeting, you can be sure that every alcoholic has tried all manner of methods to be “let off the hook” when contemplating their “own mistakes and failures”. Still, our regrets plague us. Our addiction is saturated with regret; the two are inseparable, reciprocal, each both cause and effect of the other

So it is both striking and not altogether surprising that one of the promises of recovery, heard in nearly every AA meeting is that “we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”

I first encountered the most memorable advice I ever heard about regret – that “It’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done” – at a time when drugs and alcohol were often still quite fun for me. Indeed the kind of regret suggested here is one that a person can behold with some fondness. The consequences were undesirable but you had fun doing it. In fact, part of the fun is knowing that you’re taking a chance. Maybe you missed your flight and lost your job after a multi day whisky and coke fueled binge in a hotel with prostitutes. Maybe you spent six months in jail after leading cops on a high speed chase on a Texas highway that ended with your third DUI. In the end you regret your decisions, but at least you lived. Much better than regretting that you never took any chances, that time after time you chose the security of your boring little job in your boring little town, or whatever other banal social expectations rockstars can be envied for violating.

It is perhaps more difficult to reckon with one’s choices and their consequences when other people were harmed. A person’s claim to have no regrets might sound positive or exciting when regarded only in light of how they themselves were affected, but when one thinks about the other people who may have been hurt along the way it sounds a lot different. If someone was killed in that high speed chase and the driver boasted about having no regrets, we would likely think he was a sociopath. The 70-something year old woman, sober for many years, whom I heard offer a version if Pogue’s reader’s advice about regret in an AA meeting wasn’t boasting or filled with bravado, though. She was talking about a son who had recently become sober himself and who, as such, had made a decision to avoid certain people, places, and things, one of whom was her. She spoke vaguely about mistakes she had made in her drinking years, concluding, more or less, that she didn’t really regret them because she did the best she could at the time. At the time, of course, she was an active alcoholic, presumably doing the kinds of things active alcoholics do – neglecting people and relationships, not showing up to work, spending money that should have gone to food on booze and the like. But could she have acted otherwise? Would it not be unreasonable to expect an addict to act like anything other than an addict? Can we really not be utterly and completely selfish?

The recovering alcoholic brings this question into sharp relief. Addiction limits our abilities in very literal ways. It also distorts our perception profoundly. The “information” we have about the world in active addiction is almost always wrong. And while the addict provides an extreme case, the same could be said of anyone looking back on their life. I was young and naive, one might say and anyone would understand, really, that they didn’t know any better. Thousands, millions, infinite examples abound: ghosting someone; leaving your trash on the ground in a park; throwing rocks at geese. Any of the stupidities of youth. Yes, you could have behaved differently. Yes, maybe you knew that you should behave differently, but you didn’t know, at that time, why it mattered or how to do it.

As the elderly woman shared her story, people in the meeting were nodding as if they were hearing something profound. I felt skeptical at the time and still do. It sounded like bullshit to me, a manifestation of the currently fashionable self care gone wild. But as I recount it now, I recognize that the profundity people were experiencing referred not to the factuality of what the woman was saying or its logical soundness but rather to the suffering implicit in it all and from the deep knowing of compassion. Hers is a suffering we’ve all experienced. We recognize ourselves in her and we have compassion for ourselves as we have compassion for her. In that compassion there is also a recognition of change: none of us is the same person he was then. It may be an exaggeration to say that the person (you) were then was incapable of behaving otherwise – and in fact present time intervention demanding that the addict behave otherwise is often a necessary first step toward recovery – but the point is moot now because you’ve changed. And since you’ve changed, you can be free from regret.

Indeed, there is no value in being stuck in the negativity of regret, of clinging to regret, which constitutes a form of the self-pity and negative self-centeredness that AA literature repeatedly warns against. Recovery is about moving away from what you were and toward what you can be. A compassion that encourages one to move beyond the wreckage of their alcoholic past and toward a sober present is far more valuable than a critical intellect whose demands for an accurate accounting leave one wallowing and stagnant. Between compassion that allows one to believe some life-affirming falsehood and judgment that leaves one in self pity and regret, I choose compassion. To promote happiness and growth is more important than truth. Whatever gets you through the night.

But the 12 steps suggest a different path, one that is richer and fuller, one that offers genuine freedom, relying neither on spiritual bypass nor shallow platitudes. While the so-called “promise” that “we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” is often presented in meetings as one of an ordered list of 12 statements, the text referred to in AA as “the promises” appears in the literature as an ordinary paragraph in a specific section of the Big Book, which begins with the qualification “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development …” (pp. 83-84, Alcoholics Anonymous). The regret doesn’t just go away; it doesn’t just end because we were drunk then and we’re sober now. We cease to regret the past as a result of painstaking effort. And which phase of our development is the text referring to? The 9th step, in which we “make direct amends to such people [those we have harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others”. In recovery regret is not covered over or diminished by self-glorifying No Regrets! positivity or a dogma of self-compassion. Regret is transformed in the 12 steps in an alchemy in which one confronts his/her/their fears, resentments, and past selfishness in the form of a “thorough and fearless moral inventory” (4th step), lets their findings out into the open (5th step), identifies and asks (God) to remove the causes (6th and 7th steps), and makes amends to those who they have harmed (9th step). And we continue to do this throughout our lives (10th step). In the process our regrets become both material for our own growth and the basis for becoming able to help anxother person suffering in similar ways. We don’t avoid negative emotions on the basis of a spiritual principle of self care, compassion for self, and the like. We don’t avoid accountability for our behavior on the basis of having a disease. We look at that behavior squarely, we bring it out into the open, we work to identify how and why we made the decisions we did, we face the persons we harmed in the process and ask what we can do to make it better. Sometimes there are specific actions we can take to amend the harm; other times there is nothing we can do but to recognize our fault and determine to not repeat the same behaviors in the future. In any case, by following these steps, we experience a profound change – a psychic change – we become different people, and we become uniquely qualified to help another addict.

While I was meditating on regret a thought struck me with great power. I imagined a person looking back on his life, on experiences he’d had and people he’d known and will almost certainly never see again. He was wishing he’d done more to cultivate the friendship which no longer existed in any real way other than as memory. I imagined this person coming to know for the first time, only in that instant, the value of friendship. I went deep into the feeling, into the melancholy, the bittersweetness of remembered joy and an irretrievable past. I felt deep compassion. And I thought that, in a literal way, he/you/I/we didn’t know at the time the value of what he had or might have had. It is only through the feeling of regret that one comes to know the thing that he didn’t know then. Regret informs consciousness; it is a key to the how of how one becomes a different person than he was then.

Who knows better than a recovering alcoholic or addict the possibility of redemption, of transformation, of changing and becoming someone different? Addiction itself is delusion, a refusal to face life as it is. The whole of the 12 steps is grounded in the principles of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. We forgo comforting niceties for an opportunity to live in the truth, recognizing our own failings and shortcomings, our capacity for change and redemption, the fullness of our humanity. What is truly profound is to grow, to become something we are not yet, to develop the courage that we presently lack, to develop a dignity and sense of care that we had not known before, to live in the fullness of being.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Comments (



%d bloggers like this: