What Might Have Been Might Not Have Been by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nSome time ago I wrote a blog quoting the line from the poem poem by American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier which goes:

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

I went on to say that kind of regret was something we had all experienced at some time in our lives. “If only I hadn’t done this,” or “If only I had done that, or done it differently”.  I said the poem was a nineteenth century version of the twenty-first century truism, “Live every day as if it were your last.”

But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, and I wonder if it means completely the opposite.

Is there anything more useless than regret?  It hurts us in several ways: we regret what we’ve done that we didn’t do and wish we did because if we had we would be happy in the present, or we regret what we did and wish we hadn’t and regret can paralyse from acting at all because we are always acting carefully so as to have nothing to regret.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition focuses more on the former and less on the latter:

To feel sad or sorry (about something you did or did not do).

One of my favourite newspaper columnists, Oliver Burkeman, recently re-evaluated Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled” in a similar manner.  It tends to be regarded as the poster boy poem for taking risks and seizing your destiny, when it could equally be regarded as a warning that it is pointless to try.  Burkeman counsels that it that it’s both, that we have to make choices and we’ll never be sure we made the right one:

After all, the narrator admits that both paths look roughly similarly well-travelled. And how could he be sure he took the right one? He’ll never know where the other led.

You can make exactly the point about Whittier’s poem.  It may not be a hymn to lost chances, but a warning against wasting your time regretting things that you can now do nothing about.  And yet we seem to have no control over those regrets.

The business magazine Forbes lists twenty-five!  Among them are:

  • Standing up to bullies at school and in life
  • Breaking up with my true love/getting dumped by them
  • Worrying about what others thought about me so much
  • Living the life that my parents wanted me to live instead of the one I wanted to
  • Spending more time with the kids

The list goes on and it makes me feel sad just to read it, not least because some of them resonate with me, but because even on the ones I got right, I know there are people out there regretting that they didn’t.

The nature of regret actually seems to spring from comparison.  When we think “What if” we are comparing a fantasy of what might have been with what is.  6th dan aikidoka Wendy Palmer, addresses exactly this point in her book “The Practice of Freedom” when she says “… comparison opens the door to judgement … ”

In “How to Become a Buddha in 5 Weeks”, a psychological analysis of Buddhism, Giulio Cesare Giacobbe explains that the thoughts which produce suffering are not voluntary:

How often have we tried not to think about what we have lost, our failures, our disappointments, our mistakes, but to no avail … We are incapable of avoiding thoughts that make us suffer … Because it is automatically [author’s emphasis]  produced by our memory (our unconscious).

Giacobbe’s solution is to use Buddhist techniques, which he breaks down in to five principles:

  1. Control of the mind
  2. Presence in reality
  3. Awareness of change
  4. Non-attachment
  5. Universal love

These five principles also embody much of aikido practice because aikido teaches us to embrace things as they are.  This is particularly noticeable when, during the course of a class, we practise with a number of different people, and inevitably there are some we like less than others.  When we do this, there are times when our practice is enjoyable and times when it isn’t, because we begin to take things personally and wish for things to be different.  To quote Wendy Palmer again:

… it is difficult to detach our personal experiences without retracting our feelings and our spirit … our awareness begins … racing toward what we think will end our restlessness or uneasiness … lead[ing] us out of the present into the future or the past …

This is precisely the nature of regret: not living in the present.  Obviously there are ways in which you have to live not in the present, reviewing things that you have learned in the past so as to replicate or not replicate them in the present – you only put your hand on a hot stove once, if you’re sensible; but regret encourages us to dwell in the past and wish for things to be different.  “That class would have been so much better if I hadn’t had to practise so much with so-and-so.”

And yet if you continue to practise aikido for a long time, you will spend a lot of time practising with a lot of so-and-so’s, and your techniques won’t be the techniques they are today if you don’t.

There is a rock on the very cliff edge somewhere along the Pembrokeshire coast that was carried all that way by a glacier 100,000 years ago.  Now it rests on soft grass, sheep grazing around it, warmed by the sun and weathered by the wind and the rain.  Seagulls wheel around it, and the sea stretches out to the horizon.  Along its sides are deep gouges where the ice pushed it over harder rocks.  Each of those scars is a mark of the journey that brought it to the beautiful place it is now.

Why should we regret the things which have given us our scars and brought us to where we are now?