The Wit's Guide to Regret
Or, woulda coulda shoulda
We should have slipped a picture of the infamous “No Ragrets” tattoo onto the Golden Record that Carl Sagan masterminded for the Voyager space probes. Alongside recordings of whalesong and a greeting from Jimmy Carter, this apocryphal skin art would neatly sum up our species for an alien civilization. But we didn’t.
“If I had to live my life over again, I’d make all the same mistakes – only sooner.”
— Tallulah Bankhead
Regret is a useless emotion, right? That old saw is both untraceable and inaccurate; regret can lead to sadness, but it’s not an emotion in itself. And the utility of considering — but not wallowing in — past mistakes should be clear to any non-sociopath. Even Paul Anka, who did it his way, had a few regrets.
“Looking back through my diary is like reading a vast anthology of regret and squandered opportunity. Oh well, I find myself thinking, life is there to be wasted.”
— Geoff Dyer
Dyer is the bard of minor regrets, a writer not above lamenting a misplaced transit pass. The fact that his breakthrough book was a rumination on how he hadn’t written a book about D.H. Lawrence doubtless set him on that course; he discovered a readership hungry for more chronicles of things left undone. He doesn’t quite use the neologism pregret, but it’s implied:
“I accept the consequences of doing things which I will later regret. In a sense then I regret them before I do them.”
— Geoff Dyer
Christopher Hitchens, who managed to avoid regretting the biggest foreign policy blunder of the century, argued we ought to reserve the word regret for things we’ve done and use the word remorse for things we didn’t do. Once you make that distinction, the research is clear: Opt for regret over remorse.
“You have to choose your future regrets.”
— Christopher Hitchens
Or in the lingo of behavioral science, choose errors of commission over errors of omission. Immediate failure is regrettable but forgettable, whereas failure to act leaves you a labyrinth of possibilities to wander through for the rest of your life.
“Unless you have a life of great importance, regrets are stupid, crumpled-up tickets to a circus that has already left town.”
— Lorrie Moore
But what happens to the town, the man asks in Moore’s short story. The woman replies that the townsfolk “go to church and sit in the sanctuary and sometimes they see escaped clowns sitting in the back pews with their white gloves still on.”
“Had I been brighter, the ladies been gentler, the Scotch been weaker, had the gods been kinder, had the dice been hotter, this could have been a one-sentence story: Once upon a time I lived happily ever after.”
— Mickey Rooney
So get out there and make mistakes! But maybe spellcheck your tattoos.
“And good luck with your regrets; they’ll leave you lonely and you can’t dance with them.”
— Parker Posey
“My only regret is that I have not drunk more champagne in my life.”
— John Maynard Keynes
I had a handful more lines I didn’t use, and I just turned up the stereo to confirm that they’re all in fact undanceable. Next week’s issue is the last of 2022. Either we use it appropriately or cast it to the wind with a devil-may-care attitude. You choose, as you have reliably done since mid-July.
Get Wit Quick No. 181 could have been better. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting has a specific typo that I regret, but I’ll never point it out. All the clowns can tap the ❤️ with their white gloves still on.
John Maynard Keynes was a wise man. Here's to more champagne in 2023!