Regrets and no regrets: a review of two books
Daniel Pink’s “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward” (Riverhead Books, 1922, 256 pages) opens with a brief account of Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” or “I regret nothing,” a song which includes the lines in English “No, not a thing.”
Pink then introduces us to several people wearing the tattoo “No Regrets,” and accounts of men and women ranging from Bob Dylan to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who also recommended kicking remorse to the curb.
Pink then asks “Why rue what we did yesterday when we can dream of the limitless possibilities of tomorrow?”
This worldview makes intuitive sense. It seems right. It feels convincing. But it has one not insignificant flaw.
It is dead wrong.
What the anti-regret brigades are proposing is not a blueprint for a life well-lived. What they are proposing is — forgive the terminology, but the next word is carefully chose — bullshit.
Pink then spends the rest of his book explaining both the value of regrets and how to handle them. He divides our regrets into four categories: our failure to be responsible or prudent; our failure to take chances, especially in business and love; our moral regrets, when we compromise our beliefs in goodness; and our connection regrets, “fractured or unrealized relationships” with spouses, children, friends, and others who “help establish our own sense of wholeness.”
Throughout “The Power of Regret,” Pink cites numerous studies on regret and its effects. He also quotes scores of people he contacted for this study who were sad or disappointed by some deed done in their past. A female, age 51, rues the day of her wedding, when she married far from her mother’s home, who was ill and dying. A South African man, 52, regrets having lived his life fearing failure and looking foolish. An Alabama male, 35, says, “Not taking my grandmother candy on her deathbed. She specifically requested it.” Some look with chagrin at their loose sexual practices when young while a 71-year-old woman from Michigan regrets “Not being more sexually active.” (Really? That’s the regret of your life? Perhaps because I am the same age and have plenty of regrets, this one brought a laugh.)
Pink then discusses ways to come to terms with “what I have done and what I have failed to do through my fault,” as the Catholic prayer of confession at Mass states. We can undo our past actions directly by apologies or making amends, pondering even worse scenarios that we might have caused, sharing our regrets with others, and most especially, taking lessons from our harmful words and actions and striving not to repeat them.
Near the end of his book, Pink writes that “Regret offers us the ultimate redemption narrative. It is as powerful and affirming as any positive emotion … If we think about regret like this — looking backward to move forward, seizing what we can control and putting aside what we cannot, crafting our own redemption stories — it can be liberating.”
Aimed at a broad audience, “The Power of Regret” teaches readers how to take this emotion, which we so often associate with the negative, and use it to make our lives better and happier.
On the recommendation of a friend, I went to the library and picked up Bill McKibben’s “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened” (Henry Holt and Company, 2022, 240 pages). There is much in this book I normally enjoy: its readability, the mix of personal anecdotes with statistics and news headlines, the engaging voice.
And yet, as Daniel Pink says about the anti-regret sentiment, “It is dead wrong.”
The thesis can be summed up in the questions McKibben asks at the end of the book:
“What does it mean to fly that flag above Lexington Green, when the country it symbolizes has so systemically refused to engage with its history? What does it mean to look up at that cross atop the steeple of the church beside the Green, when that faith it symbolizes has so often embraced the mainstream culture and not the people at whom its message was clearly aimed? What does it mean to enjoy the unprecedented prosperity of the American suburbs when that prosperity now clearly comes at the expense of so many others?”
Like those conservative books I once read, until they all sounded the same one-note bugle of alarm, here is a deeply biased screed against all but the most progressive positions. And though published in 2022, “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon” is already out of date. McKibben seems unaware that the United States is now $30 trillion dollars in debt and counting, that critical race theory, for better or for worse, is taught in many schools, and that church churchgoers annually donate about three times the amount to charities as non-church goers, which does not include funding and staffing of many church-sponsored social services around the country. His slams against so many ordinary Americans — “these are the generations who have given us the troubled country we inhabit — the voters who gave us Reagan and Trump —” have the divisive effect he mourns in other parts of the book.
With the exception of the first 20 pages and the last 10, I skimmed most of this book.
Je ne regrette pas.