They say that at the end of one’s life it is the things that we did not do that we regret; we never regret the things that we might have got wrong, we don’t regret trying and failing. So sang Edith Piaf, famously, at the end of her short life: ‘Je ne regrette rien / Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait, ni le mal / Tout ça m’est bien égal (I’ve no regrets / Neither the good nor the bad / It’s all the same to me).’ She’s right, isn’t she? Regrets over things you’ve done fade, in fact, they can turn into the meat of a good story.
Twenty-five years ago I did something I really regretted. I decided to enhance my blonde locks with a home peroxide job. A visitor to the house told me I would get better, faster results were I to wrap my dye-soaked hair with cling film and blast it with a hot hairdryer. Seemed like a great idea at the time. “Is there something burning in the kitchen?” After about ten minutes of assiduously applying heat I shouted to her over the shuzz of the hairdryer. “Nope, but you’re head is smoking,” she answered calmly. The cling film had begun to melt. The peroxide was dissolving my hair and my eroding scalp was raw and burning. Another passer by through the house (for that’s the sort of house I grew up in) appeared with a bottle of vinegar, ordered me to strip to my underwear and jump in the shower. She horsed vinegar over my head like an evangelical pastor at a baptism, minimising, she claimed, catastrophic hair loss. Still, my lifeless, dry, straw-coloured apology for hair came out in lumps. Of course, I took the calamity in my stride (!) and apportioned no blame, displayed (almost) no histrionics. Ok, so it’s not a major league regret, but the big hitters don’t go onto a blog, do they?
I think that the worst piece of advice I was ever given was during a particularly bad period of my life. The worst. My close adviser told me, in tones of great wisdom and insight, “Over the next couple of months, go out and do three things that you really regret. Three things that you wilfully know you will cause you lamentation, but do them anyway. Hurl yourself at them. Create new angst. Take your mind off your present predicament.” I can raise one eyebrow, but I seldom do. I save it for the important moments when I want to express utter incredulity. This was one of them. Left eyebrow as high as it could go was my disdainful, non-verbal dismissal of him, which I hoped also encapsulated ironic marvel at his crass insensitivity. The thing is, the advice has stayed with me, and from time to time I wonder what shenanigans I could get up to that would make me want to wear a hat and sunglasses for a while. Maybe he was right. Maybe it’s better to have a few harmless regrets than none at all. Maybe letting loose and deliberately creating temporary regret is an act of creativity, a manifestation of being alive. What’s the worst could happen? As my friend’s father says sagely about small peccadillos, bumps on the road, those reckless acts that you think you will never, ever live down: “sure there’ll not be a word said about it the day you’re getting married.” It makes me think of Frank Sinatra with his twinkling blue eyes singing, ‘My Way’: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few / But then again, too few to mention.’ I’ll bet Frank wasn’t one to linger over regrets, he probably wished he had notched up a few more. So if you think it’s time to take a different road, beat out and take a few chances, go right ahead. If it doesn’t work out and you regret it, you’ll get over it.
The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”