I teach a course in multicultural psychology. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach. I marvel at the diversity of the human person but also that within that diversity there’s so much we share in common. I know it’s an overused analogy, but what a beautiful bouquet of flowers the human race is. I can only imagine God created it that way so he may “Delight in us” as the scriptures say. In the midst of this diversity I’ve come to marvel at one way we’re all the same and that’s how we view regrets. Studies in multicultural psychology demonstrate regardless of culture people regret the things they’ve never done more than what they have done, even if what they’ve done resulted in mistakes.
In more specific terms, psychologists study something called “Counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactual thinking is a hypothetical belief about your past that could have occurred in order to avoid or change a negative outcome. Basically, you use counterfactual thinking when you look back in your life and say to yourself, “If I had only done (or not done) ______ I might be better off.” Maybe it was a decision to enter a particular vocation, leave a particular city, or something as simple as having bought a particular type of car. In the end, counterfactual thinking often leads to feelings of regret. There are two categories of counterfactual thinking. The first group consists of those associated with actions. So, you might say to yourself, “If I wouldn’t have eaten that last piece of cake I might not be so sick today”, or “If I wouldn’t have majored in psychology I might be more likely to get that job as a business consultant.” The regrets you have are over something you’ve done. The second category of counterfactual thinking has to do with inaction items, those things you wish you would have done. Examples of this category might include thoughts like, “If I would have studied harder at school I might have made something of myself,” or “If I had been a better husband my marriage may not have ended in divorce.” Both of these categories are the types of thoughts that lead us to have regrets and people all over the world have them.
In multicultural psychology we look at these types of thoughts and ask ourselves, “Which category of counterfactual thinking is most prevalent in different cultures and which category do each of these different cultures experience the most? What we’ve found is all people, regardless of culture regret the things they’ve not done more than what they have done. Additionally, in every culture people regret what they haven’t done to the same degree. That means everyone, regardless of where they live, regrets not doing something to the same degree all over the world. We’re most troubled by what we didn’t do. I have a theological speculation why that might be the case.
If you look at how God created the human person, we were created for action, and in particular two actions that strike at our core. We were created to love others and to be loved. Whenever we do not create or experience love we suffer. In fact, love is so important to the human condition those who don’t experience or share love suffer disease much more prominently, recover from illness more slowly, and relapse into disease more frequently. When we cannot do what we were created for we crumble. Like anything created for action, inaction becomes the source of our slow demise. God, who is constant action (Pouring himself out for creation and continually renewing all he created through love) created us to be icons of his active love. Everything the human person does is intended to be an extension of the love of God for the created order. Our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our leisure, all we do is intended to somehow love God above all other things, one another as brothers and sisters of the same father, and care for the created order. We were created for action, not to be inactive bystanders who do nothing. Because of that, when fear paralyzes us from making ourselves vulnerable to give and receive love we have a strong sense of regret. Mistakes are not our enemy, they’re part of learning to love more perfectly. Inaction and fear are our enemy. We can’t be comfortable in our inactive state, we must be stretched to be a more active agent for the kingdom of God. Innately people are aware of this and that’s why we regret what we didn’t do more than what we have done.
In my role as a minister I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they prepared to die. While the evidence is anecdotal at best, in the context of my pastoral care for them the feelings they share with me generally fall under two categories. They want to know if they were loved, but even more concerning to them is whether or not they loved others enough. They regret the love they didn’t show more than their attempts to actualize love. I pray all of you ponder whether or not you’ve become too comfortable in your attempts to actualize love; keeping yourself from “acting” in a more loving way. Never tire from finding new ways to stretch yourself and become more vulnerable for love’s sake. If you do this, your regrets will be minimized. In the end, you will find when you lay your head on your pillow for the last time the comforting voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”