So like most 21 year olds, I got a stomach piercing. I first started thinking about getting it when I was about 16, but I deliberately waited until after I was ‘legally’ an adult. Because we all know people who have gotten piercings when they were about 15 or 16 and regretted it by the time they were 18 or 19. That didn’t’ happen to me. I got mine when I was 20, and I regretted it instantly. And by “regretted it”, I mean that I stepped outside of Selfridges (where I got it done, because I thought if I paid a high price for it then at least I wouldn’t catch anything lol) and I had a massive emotional meltdown. This wasn’t me.
And this was all actually quite shocking to me, because prior to this moment, I had prided myself on having absolutely no regrets. I made a lot of mistakes and dumb decisions, of course. I do that hourly. But I had always felt like, look, you know, I made the best choice I could make given who I was then, given the information I had on hand. I learned a lesson from it. It somehow got me to where I am in life right now. And okay, I wouldn’t change it. In other words, I had drummed into my mind the absolute truth about regret; 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.
This idea is nicely captured by this quote: “Things without all remedy should be without regard; what’s done is done.” And it seems like kind of an admirable philosophy at first — something we might all agree to sign onto … until I tell you who said it. Right, so this is Lady MacBeth basically telling her husband to stop being such a wuss for feeling bad about murdering people. And as it happens, Shakespeare was onto something here, as he generally was. Because the inability to experience regret is actually one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths. It’s also, by the way, a characteristic of certain kinds of brain damage. So people who have damage to their orbital frontal cortex seem to be unable to feel regret in the face of even obviously very poor decisions. So if, in fact, you want to live a life free of regret, there is an option open to you. It’s called a lobotomy. But if you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live, not without regret, but with it.
The lesson that I ultimately learned from my piercing and that I want to leave you with today is this: We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.