Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Letters to a young man 31

Hello my friend. I'm writing on the cusp of one year's end and another's beginning, I hope this finds you well.

You asked me to write to you on dealing with regret. It is at this time of year when you may find yourself looking back over the year that's just passed and also looking forward to the one about to start. Numerous opportunities may have presented themselves which you did not seize. And perhaps you have taken actions which you look back on and wish you hadn't. I know both of these well.

I cannot say with certainty which has troubled me more in life. At one point I might have told you that it was failing to seize opportunities. But in hindsight, I believe this was something I felt mostly as a younger man. And in truth, I think this makes sense and is as it should be: for when young, you are striking out on your own and trying to make something happen with life.

Yet, as I get older it is the mistakes I make that trouble me most. Perhaps it is because I see how easily I might have avoided them. Perhaps I gave into some desire, or gave into anger too easily. Damage can be done quickly and is very slow to heal. And, perhaps because I can see how I've developed that such simple mistakes seem such a waste of life and effort. If you make mistakes more than once they trouble you doubly as you feel more and more foolish for repeating them. Eventually, you see the trap set before you have stepped on it, but it may be a long time coming. In this way we are reminded of how little we know. We think we have a thing figured out and then behave like a fool once again.

In any event, you didn't ask me to ruminate about my own foolishness. You asked me about dealing with regret. It is difficult for me to unwind the two as they are inextricably linked for me. So I will tell you this:

The first thing is to recognize that you are but a man and bound to have failures. Whether this is from lack of action or wrong action, the feeling of regret may sting you. Yet ask yourself: Did the great men of the ages never make mistakes? Did Verus not fail to send Marcus Aurelius to the armies to experience battle and soldering? Certainly he left his adopted son and later emperor ill-equipped for what laid ahead of him. Did Marcus himself never err? These great men of the ages, pick one it doesn't matter who, have all had a hand in some failure of action or inaction. Do you expect more of yourself? To raise such a bar and hold yourself to it is too cruel. You must be lenient and forgiving of yourself—that is the first thing. And of course you should expect failures from those you love most. Deal with them with leniency and forgiveness.

But this is only the first step, the acceptance. To look coldly on your error and not to wince. For if you look away, you are likely to stumble on it once again. This won't do. So, having looked at yourself squarely, you must commit yourself to learning from the mistake. You must commit to doing better at your next opportunity. Yet be mindful of the fact that you may trip up again. Maybe not as wholly, maybe in a different way, but it may happen nonetheless. Do not despair if this happens, but remember what I have told you. You are no different than the great men of the ages in your errors. However, to distinguish yourself you must stay vigilant and honest in your endeavors to remain upright and true. Do not allow yourself to play the hypocrite. With each few steps forward you take, you may fall down. Rise again and take a moment to reflect, then carry on. Life is such.

I wish you all the best as this year comes to a close. May the next year teach you much.

Farewell for now.

My book on stoicism.