I distribute a list of Henry David Thoreau quotations, one to a customer. Some people say, “I don’t understand” or “What’s he saying?” But one voice cries out, “Is he serious? In mine, he’s saying we should have regrets.
Can that be right?”
We often hear the opposite. Regret suggests you didn’t seize a shining opportunity. It hints you’re unhappy with your choices or don’t accept yourself—and love yourself—fully enough. In contrast, living without regret means acting as you should, boldly, resolutely, decisively. “I have no regrets,” the hero says, and the audience beams approval. “Here,” they think, “is courage and confidence I lack.”
The voice puts it less grandiloquently, “Why would someone want to beat themselves up all the time?”
Our petty regrets seem unavoidable. We all regret eating too much or arriving late or not leaving the office sooner to miss the highway rush or forgetting an appointment we shouldn’t have or blurting out what we’d like to take back. Those regrets we endure. We must endure them. On the grander scale, however, we want to be happy with our decisions and our lives. We want to be comfortable and satisfied or, at the very least, come to terms with whatever transpired—no regrets.
We want to sing, “I did it… myyyyyy way.”
The disputed quotation from Thoreau reads, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” I try to explain, “I think he means each day is a new day. You can look back, see what you did wrong, and correct it.”
“But wouldn’t that just make you feel bad?” someone says, “you can’t spend your life looking back.”
Another truth of our time is that the past has passed, and we ought to point ever forward. Progress demands putting yesterday behind us. Newer and better things lie ahead if we direct attention to the future. There’s no sense in dwelling, no sense in mulling, no sense in revisiting. To get over it, we must forget about it, and what happened happened. It’s done.
Thoreau believed we couldn’t move on without knowing how to. We might fall into the same error, after all, if we pretend today never occurred and don’t fully acknowledge the how and why of events. He believed in studying experience, not running from it. Even carpe diem requires forethought.
That’s what I try to say. The voice replies, “Yes, but isn’t that the same as replaying the past over and over?”
“But if that’s what it takes…” I start to say. Everyone knows the old saw about history, how anyone ignorant of it is bound to repeat it. I offer that idea instead.
“You’re going to repeat it,” someone says, “I mean, look at history, we do the same stuff over and over. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.”
The broader context of Thoreau’s declaration is, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”
I ask what—exactly—it means to “smother sorrow” but meet impatience. Perhaps it’s unhealthy to smother sorrow, the conversation runs, but should we wallow in it? What does an “integral interest” even mean, anyway? And, as far as tending and cherishing sorrow, well that’s crazy, hardly worth discussing.
Some days little seems worthy of discussion.
“Personally,” another voice says, “Thoreau is so contradictory. I’m not sure even he knew what he was saying… I think Thoreau is wrong.”
In 1839, when Thoreau wrote these sentences in his journal, perhaps he didn’t know exactly what he meant. Perhaps he was exploring, trying to examine connections between yesterday and today. Maybe he wasn’t sure and only posited an alternative to blind life, the uninterrupted and unstudied march most of us make each day. As his journals were private thoughts not clearly intended for publication, he could have uttered them only to himself, to spur the best life he could live.
I wonder, though, if that makes his ideas more or less valuable. Here is a person speaking to us from the past. Should we dismiss thinkers before us? Can we discount them so easily, without regret?