S/ - - BEAUTY -

more than a decade apart, John and I met again this sum­mer at a friend’s wed­ding. I fret­ted for weeks be­fore the cer­e­mony, won­der­ing how it would go, but John greeted me warmly, and as dear friends do, we dropped right back into old pat­terns. There were dif­fer­ences, for sure: in­stead of de­bat­ing lit­er­a­ture, we dis­sected Thomas the Tank En­gine, a favourite with each of our tod­dler sons. But we were talk­ing. We were talk­ing. And it was won­der­ful. I was cu­ri­ous about those miss­ing years, but feared ad­dress­ing them would dis­rupt our ten­u­ous new start. Thank­fully, John didn’t:

“Things ended on a sour note with us, Devon, and I just want you to know that it was never you, it was me,” he said. I’m not sure a sin­gle sen­tence has ever brought so much relief.

John filled me in on the ter­ri­ble year he’d had while I was in Korea, and on the cloud his trou­bles had cast over all his re­la­tion­ships. Then he told me a story, half-re­mem­bered, about a time he’d let me down, and how he’d been wait­ing to meet in per­son to apol­o­gize. His si­lence over the years had not been pun­ish­ment for my ac­tions, but penance for his.

From my per­spec­tive, John’s re­gret—over a lapse I barely re­mem­bered—had caused us both un­nec­es­sary suf­fer­ing, but the fact that he’d held on to it all these years made me won­der: what if my re­grets have been hold­ing me back, too?

When I got home, I listed my re­grets and ranked them: from the emails I hadn’t re­turned, to the friends I’d dis­ap­pointed, to—and this was the worst—the death I’d never ac­knowl­edged. With­out ex­cep­tion, my big­gest re­grets are things I didn’t do, rather than things I did.

Ac­cord­ing to a sem­i­nal study led by Dr. Roese, and Dr. Mike Mor­ri­son, Ph.D., cur­rently a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of West­ern On­tario, Amer­i­cans’ strong­est re­grets are split al­most equally be­tween ac­tions—things they did and wish they hadn’t—and in­ac­tions—things they didn’t do and wish they had. (There’s noth­ing in the cross-cul­tural lit­er­a­ture to sug­gest Cana­dian re­grets are any dif­fer­ent.) Al­though we re­gret ac­tions and in­ac­tions nearly equally, the study shows that re­grets of the lat­ter type are more likely to fester.

“There’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry­line in­volv­ing fu­ture op­por­tu­nity,” Dr. Roese ex­plains. “You can have a re­gret about some­thing you did, like you told an em­bar­rass­ing joke at a party and you wish you could take it back. Or you’re at the same party and there’s some­thing you wish you had said, some­thing smart or pro­found. These are al­most two sides of the same coin, ex­cept that when you think about some­thing you could’ve done but didn’t, it’s much more open to the imag­i­na­tion—it’s al­most lim­it­less.

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