Fool that I am, I used to think I was impervious to regret. The logic I employed to prop up that delusion at least had a patina of credibility: I reasoned that since I was, at any given moment in my life, doing my best (or bestish), looking back with regret would amount to an act of self-flagellation that would be useless at best and harmful at worst.
Conceits like that are representative of the defense mechanisms I use to try to delude myself into thinking I am somehow exempt from the vagaries of being human. Of course I have regrets! Of course I look back and wish I had made different choices or followed through on things I abandoned too quickly -- or even more simply, and taking my own influence out of the equation, I look back at certain things in my life and just wish they'd turned out differently.
Regret is, I think, another word for heartbreak. I'm in a phase of life where I'm pretty locked into my circumstances -- my wife, son, dogs, career, friends and acquaintances in our circles -- in a way I now realize I never was. Before my son was born a couple years ago, my way of life as an adult had been characterized by transition.
There were comparatively minor transitions, like renting a new apartment; and then there were the seismic events, like extracting myself from my career (and, honestly, life) as an actor without an idea of what was to come next; or, after an extended period of vocational and existential uncertainty, picking a graduate program, only to go on to repeat the pattern of extraction I'd played out as an actor; or, you know, getting divorced. Things like that.
As hard and as far-reaching as those transitions were, they were my way of life. There was a lot of good that came from living that way, too. But after a time, I think I grew a bit too comfortable with my barely subconsciously held understanding that if something wasn't working out very well, I could simply pull the ripcord and parachute into something new.
That reality stands in stark contrast to the one I'm in now. Living in a mode of comparative stability so that, among other things, I can help provide a stable foundation for my son to do his own growing and changing and transitioning from one phase of life to the next has proved to be really good for me. There's a big part of me that feels like I've finally grown up, and it's a relief.
It seems clear to me now that my previous refusal to acknowledge regret was a method of self-preservation. The stakes were high: I was in a quasi-permanent headspace of such uncertainty that I couldn't afford to indulge outright regret about the choices I had made or was avoiding or was actively considering. It would have been tantamount to ego death -- too painful for real life. So, it made sense for me at the time; but, eventually, it became high time to outgrow it.
So now that my life is comparatively stable, and now that I have a new set of worries and challenges to deal with as I try to create a nice life and a loving home for my young son, I can afford to look back at certain things and shake my damn head at them. I suspect I'll be thinking similar thoughts about certain things I'm doing and not doing now that, done differently, would put me in a perceived better place than wherever I'll be some years or decades hence. C'est la vie -- I'm doing my best (or bestish).
Regret and heartbreak are inevitable. The question, then, is what do you do with it? Do you just leave it there and mull it over periodically as an indulgence? Do you grow bitter and closed-minded? Or do you try to learn from it and keep the lesson handy in the event you have a chance to apply the lesson anew? I can see the challenge in doing this, but I think the latter question indicates the road I want to travel.