I got my tattoo when I was 29, and I regretted it instantly,” says writer Kathryn Schulz in her TED Talk, “Don’t Regret Regret.”
Schulz was shocked to find herself in a state of panicked lament after finally making the decision to get inked. Up to that point in her life, she’d prided herself on living without regret.
“I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret,” she says, “which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time, that we should always look forward and not backward, and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.”
Schulz finds that getting that tattoo—which she still regrets—taught her how regret contributes to growth and maturity: “If we have goals and dreams, and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong.”
In fact, regret is essential to healthy human flourishing. An inability to experience remorse or shame is characteristic of sociopaths.
But not moving beyond regret can be as harmful to human flourishing as the inability to feel it.
“Unresolved regret is a leech that steals from our present in order to feed the pain of our past, writes Michelle Van Loon, author of If Only: Letting Go of Regret. We should approach regret as a doorway to spiritual growth, not a roadblock.
Regret should be a “transitional stage” that ends in repentance, wrote Brother Roger of Taize: “Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, ‘dispels my sins like the morning mist’ (Isaiah 44:22).”
To move through that doorway, Van Loon urges her readers to reflect on the good that comes about even after we’ve made poor choices. Though she admits that “in the face of sorrow the good is not always immediately evident,” she offers a gentle reminder that in time, the gifts of life lived in the wake of a bad decision will become evident.
A sense of wonder at those gifts—not an overwhelming sense of guilt for our own poor choices—is the appropriate response of faith. Because when regret leads us to despair, we are no longer living according to the Gospel. We have denied the merciful, unconditional love and forgiveness of the father for the prodigal son.
“The spirit of guilt cannot be the point of departure for Christian life,” wrote Lorenzo Albacete. “Its point of departure is not guilt, but wonder, amazement at the love and mercy offered through the encounter with Christ, which the memory sustains.”
Regret should ultimately call us not merely to sadness, but to wonder.