Dane Swan is one of my all-time favorite Australian rules footballers.   Over the years, he has bought me many a precious moment playing for Collingwood.  My regard for him as a footballer is high as is my resonance with the larrikin type of persona he presents to the world.   Recently he was reciting an incident which occurred in his youth.  The incident involved his getting into a fight against some bouncers with a few of his friends.  He was charged by the police and by his own admission payed a hefty price for breaking the law.

Many of us have participated in experiences which do not shed us in a positive light.  I know I certainly have.  Dane’s telling of the incident does not lessen my regard for him.  Nothing has changed in that respect.

Something did catch my attention as I was reading through Dane’s account.  It was that he saw the incident as being an integral part of who he was today and that he had no regrets.  Further, he implied he would not change a single thing about his life as they all led to the person he was today.  I have come across this type of sentimentality regularly particularly in the spirituality field but also it extends to many sectors of our society.  The issue of identity I will cover in another article, but for now I wish to pick up the theme of no regrets and how we might learn from regret.

I can certainly understand why a person would come to this viewpoint, given that at various times in my life I had held similar attitudes.  But when I look at the past these days, I hold a different view some of which I am going to elucidate in this article.

I do not think it is useful to be tied up in knots with regret for prolonged periods of time.  Regret can quickly turn into a poisonous state of mind which eats away at our being.  We can easily wallow in a destructive state of despair and shame which serves no one least of all ourselves.   In these instances, the difficulty arises from the clinging and attachment to the state of mind – regret.  Most states of minds, even the more positive ones can and frequently do become problems if clinging and attachment are involved.  Consequently, it is not regret as such which causes the problem but the attachment to the state of mind which leads to suffering.

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. ~ Alexander Bell

It also raises an issue which comes up frequently in several different formats.  The issue is how do we use utilize something which normally is regarded as ‘negative’ in a more positive fashion.  Anger is one emotion which commonly is referred to in the preceding light.  For example, there are many beneficial things in the world which have stemmed from anger – medical cures have stemmed from a family members suffering, some injustices have been turned around primarily from people’s anger and outrage and so on.  Regret can work for us in a similar manner and have a beneficial influence on our lives.

s human beings, we can regret our actions and recognize that they were not as fruitful or beneficial as they might have been.  At the same time, we can know that we have no control over a past event.  No amount of anguish or beating ourselves up will ever undo the actions – what is past is past.  Similarly, we must learn to let go of the intensity of the memory.  It is often the intensity which is the hook that binds us.  The main point being is that we can regret our actions without necessarily being caught up in them There are three main parts involved in this form of regret:

  1. A recognition occurs that something was amiss/wrong.
  2. There is a learning from the mistake.
  3. A letting go of the intensity of the memory occurs.

There are things in my life which I ‘regret’ but at the same time I am not attached to the past and am not wallowing in regret.  The learning component which is a central piece of the puzzle is that if the same situation occurs in the present I would act differently.  There is not a strong theme of wishing I could go back in the past and change things.  It shifts from the past to what would I do in the present.  Almost always I would act differently.

If pushed on question of “if I could go back in the past and change things, then the answer is I will worry about that when time travel is invented.  It is a ludicrous question in the first place because I cannot go back in the past and I have no interest in the hypothetical.  The question is a fantastic way to tie ourselves up in metaphysical and psychological knots and not move on from the past.

There is another issue I think is worth thinking about and that is the one of causality.  For instance, when I was doing my graduate diploma in psychology I met a woman who I fell in love with.  Years later we parted ways on relatively bad terms.  It was a traumatic time in my life which I did not handle well.  Like Dane Swans account someone could make the argument that the breakup made me into who I am today.  To some extent that is true.

But what would have happened if I had not have met her?  I can reasonably confident that the same sort of issues raised by that relationship would have been raised by someone else -most likely within the same year.  In a sense, she was a template for my issues as I was a template for her issues.  It does not matter who fits the template as long as it is filled.  We can think about it like this, the probabilities of life were such that it was extremely likely that I would meet someone to work through some of the issues raised by the relationship.  If not her, then someone else.  Life then is not a case of cause and effect as we would like to think as quantum physics firmly tells us.

In Dane Swan’s case I would contend that he would have gotten into some sort of trouble sooner or later because he needed to focus on what was important to him.  The circumstances might have been different, the law may not have been involved, but to my way of thinking it was inevitable that he would land in trouble sooner or later.  Luckily, Dane learnt from the incident and became one of the greatest footballers of the modern era.  And that is the point, we can learn from our mistakes, we can learn from our regrets…