The other night I was thinking of a conversation I had a few weeks ago, with someone who was at the moment a total stranger.
The conversation had started with a small group of people, each of whom gradually left until it was just him and myself, and — as probably happens often when this sort of social situation comes up — the topic wandered into relationships and our sex lives. And from there my admission that I tend to overthink situations too much and look too far into the potential (negative) future, and I end up regretting a lot of the chances I missed in my life.
So. The other night on the drive home, thinking of that conversation, my mind drifted into what really defines regret. I think I know what I define as regret: it's sorrow for hurting my own happiness. Guilt, which I suddenly realized is very much like regret, is that sorrow for hurting the happiness or opinions or lives of others.
We feel guilty for not calling our grandparents more often, but don't regret it until the day we find out we'll never be able to speak with them again. We feel guilty for declining an invitation to a crazy friend's party, but we don't regret the preservation of our own sanity.
Is there a language that doesn't distinguish the two? Can you feel guilty towards yourself? (I don't think the guilt of, say, breaking a diet counts, because the guilt is towards the nutritionist or creator of the diet plan - it's a sorrow at having failed that entity, even if you don't directly know him/her/it. It's also the sorrow at having failed or garnered the disapproval of the family and friends around you for staying unhealthy.) Can you regret hurting others, even if it's towards your own happiness? Do I even make sense here?
I have tried to live a life free of regrets — I think, in fact, that was an admonition of my mother, back when I was in high school. Perhaps she meant I should err on the side of safety and comfort: don't do something dangerous just because it looks fun, because you would regret possibly losing a limb. Don't slut yourself out because you'll regret it if you end up with a horrible disease/a pregnancy/a guy who won't stop stalking you. But I've found that I've regretted more not taking the action than avoiding it. I think a lot of times it is my conservative approach to life that had lead me to looking back more often, with sadness that isn't nostalgia.
I regret not figuring out what I want from life sooner. I regret leaving New York and not making it back yet.
I regret not being together enough in college to have a chance at the guy I had a crush on. I regret not working harder to be in better shape back then. I regret not following through with some encounters.
That's not to say I've never regretted taking an action. For instance, I do regret taking the nonprofit job right out of college. I regret sleeping with two of the men I've been with. I regret (on and off) my choice of person to fall in love with.
But those regrets are tinged with the sadness of not having gone down another path, jumped on another opportunity. So maybe they are, still, regrets over the action not taken, rather than the one that was.