It’s interesting how humans are the only animal that indulges in counterfactual thinking. At times, our memories of events can haunt us because we believe we could have, should have, made a different and better decision about something.
The problem arises when we judge our past actions through the lens of our present knowledge. It’s an unfair tribunal. If one is an aware, thinking, growing person, then it’s inevitable that past issues may have been addressed in a different manner than they would be in the present.
A person who would make the same decision years later has not evolved their thinking. I certainly hope I would make different decisions now than I did as a youth.
The same can be said for how we interpret what we see around us. We are not the person we were two years ago, and we apply a different context to everything we see and every decision we make. As much as we may sometimes not like it, that’s the way of life. That’s the price we pay for being human.
When we’re tempted to look back and judge our previous actions, it’s as if we had been in a fog. What may be crystal clear to us now was obscured from us in the past. When you’re surrounded by fog, you may not realize how much it obscures your vision. It’s only when you gain some distance do you realize how your vision had been obscured. There were things we missed, things we didn’t see, or context that was missing. We’re in a fog now, too. One that we may only see years from now as we reflect on an action we took today or regret something we didn’t notice.
As far as I can tell, there are no other animals on the planet encumbered by having regrets. To be sure, animals make mistakes, but I doubt they have regrets about the or past actions. The young lion on the savannah may have turned the wrong way when chasing his prey and went hungry that night. The lion didn’t look back and fret over the wrong turn, but neither did he forget it. No, he learned and became a better hunter as he aged.
Humans would be well-suited to take a lesson from the satiated lion. It’s important to think about your actions and learn. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” However, the goal of that examination should not be regret, but to incorporate your history to make “better” decisions in the present.
If we always interpret past decisions with today’s knowledge and context, then many of those decisions will appear flawed. That is just the way it is. The solution to avoid that trap is to always examine not your actions and decisions but to examine your intentions and motives at the time. By asking yourself if you made the best decision at the moment, with the information available, and with positive intent, then you did all you could have done. All that’s left is to learn from the past and make the best decisions you can in the present, knowing full well that today’s decisions may appear faulty in the future.
The reality is, as humans, we will always have regrets. It’s a challenge our species uniquely faces on this planet. Fortunately, we have the ability to see the regrets for what they can be – an opportunity to reflect, learn and improve.