One often hears the expression “You should live your life without regrets” in the same situations that one hears expressions such as “carpe diem” and “YOLO.” The basic idea is that you should live your life to the fullest. One day, if you are lucky to be living, you will be able to look back on your life. When you do so, you do not want to feel that it was wasted merely because you were too timid and afraid to embrace it. Have courage, these slogans implore – reach the fullest potential of a happy and fulfilling life.
In what follows, I want to articulate a different way to understand this expression.
This understanding is inspired, in part, by a passage in Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. In passage #25, he writes:
“Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.”
The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that Epictetus is reminding us that everything in life has opportunity costs. In order to get something of value, one always forgoes something. The man who gets to go to the party paid for it by having to sell his praise. Epictetus then tells the reader, “But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead.”
Let’s connect this with the expression — “You should live your life without regrets.” To do this, I will tell the reader two personal facts about my life. First, by some crazy fluke, I know the exact moment my youngest daughter, Alix, was conceived. I will spare you any other details (you’re welcome). Second, my father died young from cancer. The disease was misdiagnosed…and, by the time it was diagnosed, it was too late to save him. My Father died, roughly, two years before Alix was born. Both of these events have had a dramatic impact upon my life.
Now, imagine I have a time machine. If I go back in time, say five years, and inform my father of his incubating illness, that might give him many more years of life. In a sense, I would save my father. There is, however, a cost. The odds I would be able to conceive Alix would be so slim that it would render it, for all intents and purposes, impossible. I would never be able to match the right sperm with the right egg… Alix would be lost to me. Any child I would have in the new time line, would be a new child… a completely different individual. Part of the cost, then, of me living in a world with my beloved Alix, is that I do so in a world devoid of my father.
We see many versions of this conundrum in contemporary science fiction. For example, we see it in movies like The Butterfly Effect (2004), The Family Man (2000) and Mr. Destiny (1990). And, if you are watching TV, this is the central premise with this season of CW’s The Flash.
The world is a complicated chain of cause and effect. If you go back and alter that chain, you do so at your peril. The chain is so connected and complicated, there is a high likelihood that any change would lead to horrible (from my POV) unintended consequences.
Let’s say the time line was altered, and I got my father but lost Alix. It is true that this time line would only be negative (as far as I know), because I know of my loss of Alix. Had I not known of Alix, my life in that alternate world might have been quite good. In fact, I might have had a completely different child. One, I would add, that I would regret losing just as much as Alix.
Here is the point. Everything in this world is interconnected through a complex web of cause and effect. Minor alterations can have large unintended consequences. If I change any of the misfortunes in my past, there is a good possibility I would lose something of value. Perhaps, it could be a friendship. Or, a family member. I could fail to meet my wife. And/or, I might not have my children. To have the good things in this life, then, I have bought them with the misfortunes of my past.
All that switching time lines would do is to allow me to trade some misfortunes with some of the good things I currently possess. “Living without regrets,” then, is simply noticing this feature of our world. There are many possible worlds (via alternate timelines). In each one, you will make mistakes, have bad luck, etc. True, these errors will lead to much sorrow and grief, but do not “regret” them. For they are the foundation upon which many of your most valuable things/relationships sit.
I miss my father terribly. There is not a moment that this pain escapes me. But, I could never exchange Alix for him (nor do I think he would want me to).
I understand that the misfortunes I have suffered have played a role (at least in a causal sense) in bringing about a life full of things and people I value. And, I understand that this would be true no matter what alternate life I had. To desire something else…To live a life of regret, then …. is to, as Epictetus notes, “[A]t the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, [to be] insatiable, and a blockhead.”
Dr. Shane Courtland is Program Director of the Center for Free Enterprise at West Virginia University and is SOPHIA’s Communications Officer. He is representing only his own point of view in this essay. For more information about Dr. Courtland, visit his profile page in SOPHIA’s Directory.