“Regret for the things you did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things that we did not do that is inconsolable.” (Sidney J. Harris)
If you’re not sure how to cast your vote in an election, or whether to order ice-cream or tiramisu for dessert, being told that “you’ll regret what you don’t do” is no help at all. Yet the same saying is often applied to people considering moving overseas, running away with lovers or starting a new business, as a reason to “go for it”. What strange kind of advice are we dealing with here?
The answer is that it is not advice at all. Believing that we will regret what we don’t do cannot help us decide what we should do, for the simple reason that anything we do leaves possibilities undone. The mistake people make is to confuse what is in fact an insight into a tragic feature of human life and psychology with advice. For the wisdom in Harris’ words is that whatever we do, we will wonder what would have happened if we had gone down another route. And whereas we have to live with the downsides of the choices we make, we tend to think only of the upsides of those options we rejected.
The irony is that Harris’ saying is invoked most often by those afraid of missing out on life’s experiences. But while it is true that timidity and fear of the unknown can prevent us from doing many worthwhile things, the core truth these words reflect is that we cannot go down every path open to us and the important thing is not to let what we don’t do become a ghostly absence that follows us in the shadow of the one life that we eventually actually carve out for ourselves.