There is a tendency people have to stop whatever they’re doing once in a while, and engage in an exercise of time travel fantasy. Whenever important occasions come by, we tend to let our minds wander – we look back onto what we’ve accomplished and think about what we could have done differently. And in this curious game we almost always end up in the state of regret. You regret what you did back then, because now you can see the events unfolding with clarity, and you want to entertain the idea of what could have been, and the things you could have had. This is a pointless and ultimately draining, yet such an engaging exercise – why is it so?
We cannot change the past – this much we can all accept. Our imaginations, however, run a different course. In wishing to have made a different choice in the past, and regretting we haven’t, we let ourselves be fooled by the old fallacy of creeping determinism. Not because we like the regret itself, but because we like languishing in the feeling, the fleeting fantasy that “it could have been different”. We fool ourselves with these words by holding the hypothetical “I totally could have” up next to the factual “I did”.
The resolution is pretty straightforward – what has passed, has passed. There is no going back and fixing it. The execution is of course much more difficult. Because our imagination is so powerful, it will continue to fool us if kept unrestrained. It can make us become so attached to its products that by just giving up on them, it can feel as though we are giving up on a part of life. But this isn’t so – much like with the rest of our fantasies – and we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge this.
So remember this: of all the realities you could have imagined, there is only one you are in, whether you want to or not. You could have done things differently, but you haven’t. It’s over and you can’t change it. What you can do is decide to break with the past that could have been and live in the present that is. And this “now” has an advantage – not because it’s how you want it to be, but because it’s the only place and time when you can want and regret and plan and act. Because of this, the time you spend regretting is the time you don’t spend doing anything else. By doing so, you make the worry about what could be the reality. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s not real.
You don’t need to take your past with you to learn from it.
Let this be a short reminder on the futility of basing one’s mental state on that which doesn’t exist.