Passing the Regret Test

Hallelujah. I graduated from the Breast Cancer doctor. Hugs, dancing in reception and NO next appointment. Bring on the morass of disability insurance forms. Do I regret my failed attempt to return to work? No, I love my job as a conflict manager and wanted to be there, though every day was a struggle and every walk home was tearful. If I hadn’t tried, I’d have wondered if I could, and I’d like to live life without such regrets.

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Omar Khayyám wrote in the Rubaiyat attributed to him: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line; nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’

Sometimes it felt like the moving finger was a steamroller. There probably isn’t a mistake I haven’t made and tried to rationalize as the only thing I could’ve done under the circumstances (yikes, I fit in Self-Serving Bias). I thought to reach out to someone, speak a kind word, apologize, express love, and then didn’t do it, or didn’t do it well. I figure the moving finger ought to be more pious and witty in the first place. Then maybe I wouldn’t regret what I did or didn’t do.

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And for those times I’m at a bifurcation point, where once the decision is made it can’t be reversed, I’ve created a Regret Test, when there’s no eraser or do over. The decision becomes a ‘frozen accident’ (Dr. Murray Gell-Mann’s phrase). We should all be fortunate enough have such decisions that change the course of our own and others’ lives: the freedom to decide who to love, where to get an education, whether to take a gap year traveling or go straight into a job. Those decisions set a course where people meet who would never otherwise have met, live places never otherwise visited, and experience life in transformational ways. I’m always aware that it’s freedom and good fortune that allow these bifurcation points.

To take the Regret Test, I find a quiet comfortable mood. I imagine my deathbed at 120-years-old, my few remaining friends and family around me. With my last strength, I say: ‘I’ve had a good life, doing everything I wanted to do. The only regret I have is … ‘ Then I fill in the decision I’m trying to make. If it feels like I’ll regret doing or not doing it, that makes my decision clearer. It’s my form of penny spinning that the wonderful poet scientist Piet Hein grooked about.

A Psychological Tip

Piet Hein

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,

and you’re hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No – not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Living without regret should be easier than it is. All the mistakes and learning are the legacy to me from that person I was and will be. The moving finger doesn’t leave behind a band-aid so my conflict competence first aid kit contains a penny and a Regret Test.