Sometimes when I’m running, the song “Non, je ne regrette rien” by the legendary French singer Edith Piaf comes up on my iPod. In English, “Non, je ne regrette rien” translates to “No, I have no regrets,” and it gets me going every single time. Without fail, no matter how tired I am, that song is the wind beneath my wings.
If only it were that easy in the rest of my life.
You see, the rest of my life is not so simple. When I run, I am running and that is all I am doing. When I live the rest of my life, I multitask. I am reading, and then I start thinking about the terrible choices I’ve made in the past. Or I am trying to fall asleep, and then I start wondering about what might have been.
Regret is a funny emotion. It’s actually quite fun sometimes to daydream until you realize that you have literally no power to actualize your dreams. Then the despair sets in.
For me, regret is instantaneous. Sometimes it happens even as I make a choice: I’m ordering in a restaurant, hearing the words leave my mouth, and I know that what I am saying is wrong, all wrong, and I will hate what I have just ordered, but I am powerless to stop it. Of course, things get more complicated when humans and not main courses are involved. Everything is liable to be regretted, because the alternate universe—in which I make perfect choices and am generally perfect—is so incredibly appealing.
Choosing a college was probably the most important choice of my young life, and true to form, I was regretful from the moment I pressed “submit” on the Common Application.
I regretted having applied where I did; I regretted my essay topic; once I got in, I regretted having chosen Wesleyan at all. When I got here, I was periodically crippled by pangs of regret. It wasn’t really personal. It was just that every time something went wrong here, I imagined a parallel scenario at another college, a college where things went swimmingly all the time. I pictured myself making another choice—a better choice.
It seems to me that the world is pretty much just the past. That’s it. It’s all that we have. The present is meaningless. Had we not lived in the past, we would all be thinking, “Who are these people? How did I get here?” So it’s healthy, I suppose, to look back, because that is how we derive meaning. We become conscious of things only after they have happened, too; you have already read the next few words of this article by the time you realize you have just read the word “realize.”
Regret is all tied up in the past. It’s inextricable from it, really. It has zero basis in the present, and certainly no basis in the future. And judging from the amount of time we spend in the past—all of our time, to be exact—it is inevitable.
So let’s redefine regret. I’m no expert in etymology, but I’m going to go ahead and assert that “gret” means “choose.” To re-gret is to wish we could re-choose. My idea is that this longing to re-choose can be redirected. We’re living in the past anyway, so we might as well have fun with it. We can revel in the past, if we so choose, and we can savor the choices we’ve made, good or bad. They happened!
We can let our past choices be like a favorite book that we can read over and over again. The circumstances might change, but the plot is always the same, and let’s let it be the same. Few things are the same from day to day, so it’s comforting that the past is. Let’s let the past be the only thing we know, and let’s let it stay in the past.
This is clutch, by the way, when it comes to choosing a college.
Because, of course, there’s always the future. The good news is that it’s a lot easier to change the future than it is to change the past—one hundred times easier, to be exact.
When I was a junior in high school, Tom Wolfe came to visit my school, and I immediately signed up for the position of his aide—someone who would fetch him water, flip to the correct page in “I Am Charlotte Simmons” for him to sign, and appease the snarky people in line with their books.
When the crowd died down, and it was just me and Tom Wolfe and a stack of books, he asked me if I had begun thinking about college. I answered in the affirmative, and then Tom Wolfe winked at me (Tom Wolfe winked at me!!!) and said something remarkable: “Think of a famous person, a celebrity you admire,” he said.
“Judy Blume,” I answered after a moment’s pause.
“Where did she go to college?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to answer and then realized that I had no idea.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.