How to live with regrets

Pacific Standard spoke to psychologist Edward Chang about the nature of regret and what our modern culture could learn from Nietzsche about living with our mistakes.

Is there anything new about the current philosophy of no regrets?

I have a young daughter who listens to music, and there’s a song out there by Kesha called “Die Young.” It’s about teenagers and living the night like it’s the last night of their lives. We find this theme everywhere in our history and culture. Think of Dead Poets Society, with its emphasis on the notion of carpe diem [“seize the day”]. There’s a tendency in human civilization to put an emphasis on living for that day, to its fullest. It extends back to ancient Greece, where citizens never had a notion of “human beings,” but of “mortals” and “immortals.” If you read any text from the ancient world, they all center on how a human being can live like the gods, forever. It’s this notion of mortality, embedded in us by religion, that drives not just aspiration, but also fuels a cycle of regret — a sense that no matter how hard you try, you’ll fail to live like the gods.

It was Nietzsche who really wanted to develop a coherent philosophy of “no regrets.” This starts, really, with Nietzsche’s “formula” for human greatness and the principle of amor fati, or “love of [one’s] fate.” Nietzsche wrote that “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it — all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary — but love it.”

Nietzsche was struggling with the question, driven by the specter of mortality, with how humans should live a good life. He had two extreme positions in front of him: the ancient ascetic position, which dictates that to live a good life you must forgo human desire, and the more hedonistic carpe diem philosophy that we see crop up in pop culture. But really, Nietzsche wasn’t arguing for either position. When he talks about amor fati, there’s a higher level of uber-morality going on there, that goes beyond carpe diem or asceticism, that’s really asking us to embrace our mortality rather than shy from it with regret.

So I guess Nietzsche was the originator of YOLO (“you only live once”), then?

Sort of. In a way, amor fati and the “will to power” aren’t just abstract philosophy; I’d argue that Nietzsche is actually one of the first and most powerful psychologists. Nietzsche asks: How am I going to get people to wake up from their day-to-day habits, the iron cage of daily life that makes us creatures of comfortable habit, and how should we be truly living our lives?

The vehicle for people to wake themselves up and change their lives, Nietzsche says, is regret. In reality, the YOLO and carpe diem culture is a misinterpretation of the “will to power” that made him famous. I’ve seen so many pop psychology books that suggest abandoning regret to live a good life; purging regret from your thought process. But none of these books have the backbone that Nietzsche did, to advocate that we face our mortality and the certainty of regret as a motivation for changing your life. [Continue reading…]

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