What If? The Place of Regret in Adulthood

The place of regret in adulthood. Image of a man in a dark room holding his hands over his face.I went to see the Korean film, Past Lives, recently. It’s a beautifully filmed, quiet film which poses that mother of all questions:  What if? In the movie, that question is framed around a childhood friendship that coulda/shoulda/woulda morphed into a romantic relationship…if only. Even as you understand, rationally, how things must unfold in this story, you’ll still find yourself wondering about the road not taken between these two individuals. I’ve long believed that regret is a central component of adulthood. And the older you get, the more time and opportunity you have to reflect on what might have been. Here’s a post I wrote a long time ago reflecting on the place of regret in adulthood.


“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

–Frank Sinatra, My Way.

What a great quote that is.

I’ve been thinking about regret lately. It all began with this touching piece by David Sedaris in the New Yorker a few weeks back. Sedaris writes movingly about a near-hook up he almost had in his early 20’s with a Lebanese guy whom he met on a train in Italy. Although the guy invites Sedaris to get off the train and join him, Sedaris passes on the opportunity. But he still thinks about that guy—and what might have been—all these years later.

The essay is a giant homage to that great question of adulthood:  What if?

The Road not Taken is also the subject of Mamma Mia, which I watched with my kids last weekend. Mamma Mia, and I’m not spoiling anything here, is about a young woman on the brink of getting married who doesn’t know who her father is. So (unbeknownst to her mother) she invites the three likely candidates to her wedding.

Passion, longing, anger, resentment (and a good many Abba songs) ensue. The movie is all-out camp, but nestled within all the cheese are a few touching moments that work. (Meryl Streep singing The Winner Takes It All to a love-struck Pierce Brosnan was my own personal favorite).

What Sedaris’ essay and Mamma Mia have in common is wistfulness, which is a huge part of adulthood. In Sedaris’ case, it’s not that he regrets whom he ended up with. (He makes a subtle nod to his long-time partner, Hugh, at the end of the essay.) It’s just that he’s wondering if —in turning down that handsome Lebanese guy all those many years ago—he missed the boat. Not necessarily the boat, but a boat nonetheless.

In so doing, Sedaris articulates that great fear of adulthood:  that once we make a choice, everything else becomes path dependent.  Which in turn forces us to come to grips with the fact that we may never go round again.

This can be a fear about your personal life, as it was in these two instances. But it might also be a fear that we bring to career choices andwhere we live and the schools we attend (or don’t). What I find moving about regret is that you can’t really escape it. You need to just live with it and perhaps, even, embrace it by, say, writing a short story in the New Yorker.

On a lighter note, midway through the movie, which is shot on the Greek islands, I commented that I’d like to go to Greece.

To which my daughter replied: “OK, but let’s not go to Latin.” No, indeed. Let’s not.

Please tell me that you, too, are now singing “The Winner Takes It All”…

Image: Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

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