Thursday, November 13, 2008


Economist, Bryan Caplan wrote a post describing one of his favorite scenes from the show The Gilmore Girls. At the very end, he links to a previous post of his talking about regrets. I'm going to quote from the earlier post, but it helps to read both posts. Anyway, he says:

I don't regret anything in my life prior to the conception of my sons. This may sound like sentimental nonsense, but I tell you it's true. Here's my argument:

  1. Basic biology: A man produces hundreds of millions of sperm every day. Each of these sperm contains (half of) the genetic blueprint for a different person. The slightest physical movement changes the position of sperm.
  2. Therefore, any change in my life prior to my children's conception would have led my children not to exist. If I had crossed my legs differently, or walked to the frig, or even chuckled an extra time, the sperm would have been rearranged, negating my children's existence. I might have had different children, of course, but they wouldn't be the ones I have.


What I'm really saying is that if you love your children just because they're the ones you got, you have a special reason to be happy every day. After all, you can survey your whole life before your last child's conception and honestly say: "It all happened for a reason. I wouldn't change a thing."

This reminds me of the movie The Family Man with Nick Cage. It's basically an inverted version of It's A Wonderful Life. In the newer movie, the main character pursues his career with gusto, and becomes extremely rich and powerful. Until he meets his guardian angel who grants him a "glimpse". He is then transported to what his life would have been had he made one key decision differently. In his glimpse, he has a modest house, two kids, and an adoring wife.

The saddest part of the movie to me is when the glimpse ends. He knows that it's going to end and he's going to go back to his actual life. The relationships that he's built with his kids will be forever gone. It's actually worse than if the kids died. Then, he could at least remember them with someone else who knew them. Instead, his kids will be a memory that he alone has because when he returns, his kids never existed.

And this has me thinking about my regrets. I understand Caplan's logic. If given the choice to go back and undo some of the dumb things that I did, knowing that it would also undo my kids, I would leave the dumb things in place. I wouldn't even think twice about it. But I still can't shake the feeling of regret.

I suspect that the purpose of this feeling is to steer me away from a repeat performance. So in that sense, there is a value to regret. It's not that you should use the feeling to try and change past behavior (even if you could) but rather it's useful as a tool to redirect future behavior.


Anonymous said...

Yesterday, I told three men how I came to be the person I am. My account of my childhood is dramatic: drugs, sex, violence. My account of the transformation from that life is even more dramatic: someone gave their life to rescue me.

Folks in the know have two reactions: joy at my recovery; regret at my losses.

I don't struggle with regret. I'm glad for my journey.

Your point that regret can keep us from making mistakes now and in the future is well said.

Niffer said...

Yet another well-spoken post. I had never thought of regret from that point of view and I really like it. It hit me hard (in a good way) about some of the decisions I have made in the past. Though I regret those decisions, I wouldn't trade Ellie for them. I like the positive spin you put on it, like the previous commenter, about using regret to make us a better person in the future. Thanks!

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