When I was around two years old, I found myself in my parents’ bedroom, thrillingly alone (total lack of supervision was difficult to come by in those days). I don’t remember exactly how I took advantage of this newfound freedom, but I do remember whatever revelry I indulged in ending abruptly upon discovery of a small, silver, shiny object I had never seen before.
It was the kind of object that I instinctively knew, even if I couldn’t fully process the concept, spelled DANGER. It was the kind of object that, normally, would be snatched away before I could gaze at it for too long.
So I grabbed it.
I didn’t have time to enjoy whatever function this mysterious toy was supposed to serve, because seconds after my small, uncoordinated fingers closed around it, I dropped it in shock at the stab of pain in my right index finger. The skin was broken; ugly, crimson blood spilling into the palm of my hand, onto the floor.
My memory fades after this; I am sure I screamed loudly, bringing thundering footsteps and soothing, then sharp words: parental relief and fear and guilt enshrouding my terror and confusion at my new toy’s sudden betrayal.
It was a razor blade.
I still have the scar.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Several years ago, a group of neuroscientists at the University of Minnesota conducted a lab experiment to detect whether rats could experience regret. They put the rats into a circular maze, which would eventually lead to four possible destinations: a chocolate-flavored food, a cherry-flavored food, a banana-flavored food, and an unflavored food. Upon arriving at their destination, the rats would have to listen to a tone that could last from one to forty-five seconds before they could indulge in the treat. Time was of the essence, however; each rat had only one hour to complete the maze.
The scientists discovered that rats can indeed feel regret for choices they have made. If a rat passed on one treat and was later forced to wait longer for their second, the part of their brain that remembered that first treat would light up – they would even pause and look back. Additionally, the rats would typically be willing to wait longer for food after making a bad decision, and would gobble it up quickly, instead of savoring it as they normally would. These rats would recognize their folly, and later compensate by taking whatever they could get, as quickly as they could get it.
The “no regrets” rhetoric popularized by youth culture in the early 2000s plagued me throughout my late teens and early twenties. Inundated with the ‘live, laugh, love’ Myspace meme ideals that comprised my adolescence, I believed that one could only find satisfaction in life through adventure, through travel, through exploration. Long road trips with no clear destination. Nights spent on the beach in unfamiliar cities. Parties that lasted all night, featuring strangers kissed and soon forgotten. My ideal life was found in the thirty second montages of films like “Crazy/Beautiful” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”: I would fantasize about myself abstractly, always imagining myself as the observer, and my dream self as the observed, laughing and running and living with all of the zeal and charisma that my actual self so pitifully yearned for, and sadly lacked.
The grand gestures, I told myself, were what life was worth living for. The more wild and reckless my youth, the fewer regrets I would have. What was a regret but the gaping absence of an exhilarating memory? Wasn’t this why so many adults appeared so dour, so unhappy? They hadn’t had enough adventures. And now they were too old to have fun.
Unfortunately, chronic loneliness and depression do not lend themselves well to a life of reckless abandon. I tried. And with each attempt to climb out of my dark pit, I would fumble and stumble and eventually lose the motivation to keep trying. College was one of those times. I settled on my school for financial reasons, rather than do the necessary work to find one that would be a better fit. I can’t explain exactly why I gave up, but I did. I recognized my defeatist attitude, and I did nothing to remedy it. Whatever, I thought.
It was the first regret that incurred an avalanche of more: my dorm, my classes, my friends, my clubs, my activities. All of the tiny disappointments that I endured were a direct result of a decision that I had made, one that I could never go back in time to unmake. Every day, I carried the weight of the life I wanted to live in my backpack, trudging from home to class to home. I continued to spin my old fantasy: sparkling me, happening upon friends, building meaningful relationships, and discovering my social niche. My conceptualization of ‘no regrets’ was shifting; rather than seeking adventures, I found myself, after years of isolation, desperate to connect, to build the lifelong friendships that I thought were part and parcel of my time at college.
Four years later, I graduated with one real friend, $30,000 of debt, and an English degree. I had traveled, and had adventures, and had hundreds of new pictures to prove it. I had partially fulfilled the dreams of my adolescent self: I had run on foreign beaches and danced sweaty in dark rooms and kissed nameless strangers whose names I had forgotten. And I still felt, as I walked away from my commencement ceremony, like I had racked up more losses than gains. I got into my car and drove home, readying myself for the barrage of congratulations and well wishes from family members who had traveled to watch me walk across a stage and collect a piece of paper. I felt vaguely proud of what I had accomplished, and relieved that it was over, but deeper than those sensations was the very real desire to return to my senior year of high school and start it all over again.
That desire has never fully gone away.
It goes far beyond the very temporary thrill of those four years of higher education. In the course of a lifetime, four years don’t amount to much. I mourned what I felt I had lost by the time those years had passed: opportunities for mentorship, for finding older, more experienced women from whom I could gain wisdom, learn self-confidence. Opportunities for friendship - for finding like-minded people my age that I could begin to build lifelong memories and relationships with. Opportunities for my career - for finding a network of peers with similar educational backgrounds and aspirations that I could grow with.
More than those opportunities lost were the environment and time to learn how to forge those kinds of connections on my own. A college campus is insular, protected; a microcosm of the ‘real world’ where interpersonal communication skills are fostered and encouraged. Shy and alone, utterly lacking a basis of support, I floundered. And continued to flounder, long after I collected the necessary credits and threw away my cap and gown.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I am still the rat, wistfully gazing back at the food I could have had.
For the past five years, I have not only accepted my regret; I have embraced it. It has become a part of me, the way my poor eyesight and slightly crooked front tooth are a part of me. I can easily trace many, if not all, of my current dissatisfactions to my years at college, and thus my regrets multiply, in number and in volume. I carry that crippling weight with me, as if I never set down that backpack that I wore to class every day. And finally, I think that I am ready to take it off.
I understand the utility of regret. For someone my age, recognizing the poor decisions of the past can help me make smarter ones in the future. My growth as a human being is partially fueled by my own foibles. Each pit that I fall into can only be conquered by - eventually - climbing out. Every ascent will leave its scars, its painful memories. I could have had the chocolate, or the cherry, or banana. If only I had done this, instead of that.
But my old relationship with regret was not a beneficial one - it was an abusive one. I let my bitter memories cloud my reasoning, and allowed myself to remain emotionally stationary when I should have been moving away – running away – from my mistakes. I said “Whatever” one too many times, and adopted the same defeatist mindset that led to all of those years of regret. I had picked my wound open for too long. Rather than scar, it festered. I lived in the shadow of my regret, and instead of celebrating my gains and accepting my losses, I perversely did the opposite. I deserve this pain, I would think. I brought it upon myself.
My first child entered the world exactly one month ago. I now have the awesome, terrible responsibility of nurturing, protecting, and raising a brand new life. There will be times that she will cry and I won’t know why or what to do. When she is learning how to walk, she will fall, and probably get hurt. She might put something in her mouth that she shouldn’t or hit her head or bruise her knee. I will feel guilty each and every time. I will wonder if I am equipped to be in this role, if I can trust myself enough to be the mother my daughter needs and deserves.
My old brand of regret, the kind that cripples rather than teaches, has no place in this new phase of my life. I no longer have the luxury of wallowing in the mire of my poor choices. I can already feel the relentless press of time, the way it gathers speed as it passes, as undeniable a force as gravity. Each minute, each hour, each day holds another opportunity that I can either take, or not take. The not taking will occur, and I will be sad, or angry, or guilty. It will hurt. It will scar.
And I will - I will have to - move on.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Carla Bruce-Eddings is a teacher, writer, and serial to-do list creator. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and imaginary dog. You can follow her on Twitter @carlawaslike and read more of her writing on her website, carlawaslike.com.