On Regret

It’s not healthy, this method of self-brutality we’ve named ‘regret’. Often you can’t do anything about what has caused it. But if you allow it to build up or if you build it up into something that surrounds you, then you soon find yourself lost and consumed by it. It can affect your vision of everything else. And until you can get past it – knock down the house of regret and pave it over, as the song so eloquently puts it – you will be hindered by it, worn down by it, held back by it.

I’ll share with you a short allegory I've found useful:

The Woman at the Riverside

Two Buddhist monks, Bankei and his student Joshu, were traveling along the riverside when they reached a washed-out bridge. A woman was there, wishing to cross, but she was very small and unable to withstand the river’s current. Bankei took the woman upon his shoulders and the three crossed the river. Once upon the other side, Bankei set the woman upon the riverbank and wished her well in her travels. He and Joshu then went on their way.

They walked for several miles in silence before Bankei finally asked his student what was troubling him. Joshu replied that it was Bankei’s actions back at the river that concerned him.

“How so?” asked the teacher.

“You know as I do that we are not to so much as touch a woman. And yet you took that woman upon your own shoulders! How am I to reconcile that, teacher?”

“What I did for that woman was an act of kindness, nothing more, and when we reached the other side of the river, I left the woman there.” Bankei then looked Joshu in the eye and asked him, “Why are you still carrying her?”

This short parable has helped me to realize the complete uselessness of regret. Bankei made a moral decision and then went on his way with no regrets. His student, however, spent a lot of time in resentful silence before realizing his folly.

Sadly, what took Joshu a few miles’ walk to come to terms with has taken me decades.

I’ve had more than a few bouts of potentially crippling regret throughout my forty years. I have lost more time than I want to admit all but disabled by contrition and self-reproach. And none of it was ever worth the anguish I poured into it.

It’s a shame it took me so long to realize that there’s no value in regret – that all we can do is move forward learning from our mistakes and honestly rectifying whatever problems we’re responsible for. This is not to say that we are not accountable for our own wrongdoing; only that penitence is pointless if not used as an impetus to change for the better. Languishing in regret serves only to turn the regretted event into an even larger beast.

I can say it now. All that shit in my past that I thought was worth beating myself up over means nothing. It’s what I do from here on that matters. I move forward without regrets.

NOTE: If you enjoyed the song featured in this post and would like to have the mp3, you can acquire it here or here.
(If you're using Firefox as your browser (and you should be), simply right-click and choose "Save Link As…")

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About kirkstarr

I draw pictures for a living.
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11 Responses to On Regret

  1. arbed says:

    After several situations in my life, I made a conscious decision to live by what I was constantly advising others – you cannot change the past; all you can do is allow it to shape your future.

  2. Marque says:

    right on, dahlin…regret is a waste of time. what possible good comes out of regretting your past? just start today – and live one step at a time – or, in my case, one step and one trip at a time. heh..oh – and good song!

  3. as someone who can worry himself into quite a paniced state, i can totally see where you're coming from. i'm glad to hear that you've been able to move on and put your regret behind you. i'm working on it myself.

  4. §abba says:

    This is advice I need to learn to take. Thank you!

  5. Beautifully written, Kirk. It's funny how often I've been in a very contemplative, reflective mode at the same time another of my kindred spirits has been doing the same. I think it's cool when people experience small synchronicities like that. I really love what you've written here and I'm taking it to heart. It's a lesson I'm still learning, myself.Hugs to you.

  6. Crush says:

    I have a slightly different perspective Kirk: In some of my darkest times, pain and regret were the only things I was capable of feeling. They both served to remind me that there was life yet to live, since I was numb to everything else. I'm in a much better place these days, but if it weren't for regret, I may not have made it to the joy and clarity that I have now. Great post.

  7. IG says:

    right on, kirk. i've learned to travel light too — lets me pick up souvenirs and fun things along the way. 🙂

  8. Kiss Me Cate says:

    I've said for years, regret is only for the things you didnt do.

  9. . . . says:

    I learned in college that regret is a wasted emotion. It saps time and energy from making better decisions and continuing life's journey. Now, I see it, acknowledge it, put it aside, and continue on with the lesson learned tucked under my arm. A life lived without lessons or scars is a boring one indeed.

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