A frequent source of torment that plagues me is the ever-haunting “what if” question. These range from mundane decisions to the more profound choices we’re all invariably faced with. What if I had studied for this degree rather than that one, or had taken that job offer instead of sticking with what I had. What if I had chosen that friend over this one, or done more to repair the friendships I ended up losing. What if I hadn’t dumped some ex-girlfriends, or had asked that one girl out instead of the other one (what if I never had the courage to approach my current girlfriend for that matter).
The sense of freedom and control we derive from our capacity to make choices can also be accompanied by dread, frustration, and paralysis. I cannot help but dwell on the paths that were never taken, or on those decisions I never made. The counter-factual problem deals with the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of determining what would have happened had alternative courses of action been taken. Once something is done, there is no turning back. Even reversing a decision still comes after the fact, and is itself a consequence of having not taken it in the first place. The fact that all these what ifs will never been addressed with any certainty wracks my anxiety-prone mind periodically.
Then I must consider the choices never acknowledged – in other words, the seemingly mundane judgments that end up having more significance than we could have ever anticipated at the time. Sometimes, we may never even come to notice their importance at all. What if I missed out on taking a class that would have put me in contact with someone that could eventually land me in a position of power? What if deciding not to go out one night ended up saving my life, since I might have ended up in a fatal car accident? We learn of numerous anecdotes, some famous and others from friends and family, in which the right circumstances, precipitated with a certain sequence of events, led to Earth-shattering consequences (what if Hitler had been accepted into art school? What if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand wasn’t assassinated? These are just the more famous ones we know).
It needn’t all be negative of course. The problem is that humans tend to have a confirmation bias when it comes to the bad things – we remember the hits more than misses. But with the counter-factual problem, the prejudice for the negative is exacerbated: we’ll never know if an outcome could have actually been worse, which would’ve made a seemingly bad decision far better than the alternative. We can focus on the missed opportunities, but have a harder time noticing the ones that didn’t get passed over, since we have no alternative to compare it to.
I know it’s futile to obsess over the many eternally unchangeable judgments of my past. But it’s an exercise that my neurotic thoughts can’t help but entertain, especially in moments of boredom or daydream. I find these concerns to be most prevalent prior to bedtime. I often keep myself awake wondering “what if” about countless things in my personal life and even about historical events across the world. Surely I’m not the only one that does this, right?
Regret is interesting because it comes only with hindsight – you never regret something in the present-tense, because you obviously never know the consequences of your actions until moments or even years later – if at all. Feelings of remorse cannot emerge until the facts are gathered, and that only ever comes when it’s too late. Most actions should arguably never be regretted, since there is generally little you could have done at the time given the circumstances and limited knowledge. No amount of planning and preparation can account for any and every outcome of whatever action you take – humans aren’t naturally inclined to be that calculating and foresightful anyway.
Even if you use your knowledge and sense of repentance to rectify your mistakes (assuming they’re even fixable), you’ll still have to endure the troubles that may have already transpired. The only consolation is that, hopefully, you learn something from the experience – not that any amount of learning will ever eliminate the inevitable cycle of guilt we all endure consistently throughout our lives. No one can ever live a perfect life devoid of demons. To do so would be inhuman, and since even inactions are themselves decisions, trying to avoid that hard choices in life won’t save you either.
Arguably, a life without regret is probably not worth living. Those of us who have been bold or decisive enough to take action will inevitably face the consequences – but we’ll also benefit from the fruits of our courage as well. To paraphrase Einstein, anyone who has never made a mistake has never tired anything new. More human successes, on an individual and global scale, are the product of experimentation, risk-taking, and simply making the choice and dealing with what may come of it. I like to comfort myself with the notion that all this nagging guilt is the small price to pay for a life that is otherwise fulfilling and fortunate.
Now I’ve come to wonder: what if I could quiet my mind for just a moment and stop letting these musings get the best of my concentration, sanity, and peace of mind? There’s a counter-factual I’ll probably never really know.