What really gets me are missed opportunities. Not the ones I didn’t see coming, but the ones I did, but which left me paralyzed as I watched them whizz by.
In my ongoing quest to master Spanish, I have recently been hanging out with Eva, a girl from Valencia. She is in Berlin to learn German and so we meet up, talk in our respective languages, and thereby learn them from each other – an arrangement in equal parts simple and genius. When we first met, much of the talking was about our respective life stories. Why was I learning Spanish? Had I ever visited Valencia? I explained that while I had spent four months in Barcelona in 2009, I never once ventured out of the city. As she looked at me in disbelief, I explained that I had felt overwhelmed by my workload in Barcelona, or – to be more precise – the feeling of facing a great workload and a duty to double down on the Bachelor thesis I was writing at the time.
In hindsight, I have long realized that my justifications back then had grown out of insecurity mixed with a misguided sense of duty towards something ultimately manageable. My workload never once prevented me from leaving the city and, say, taking a train to Valencia. I must have realized it back then but never would have admitted it to myself.
Trying to explain something like that is a painful – if sobering – exercise. It begets some very obvious lessons, such as using opportunities as they present themselves. But it wasn’t until I read Oliver Burkeman’s excellent article “No regrets? Why not?” in The Guardian that I understood there was more too it. Burkeman pits Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati against the urge to try and live without regrets:
Amor fati is all about living with no regrets, but not in the modern way. Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means (among other things) learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not. After all, if a given aspect of life is truly “necessary”, refusing to embrace it means rejecting reality. And what could be more truly necessary than the past, which has already happened and can’t be undone?
Once you grasp this, the modern mantra of “no regrets” begins to look not courageous but fear-based: a desperate, panicky effort to avoid future sadness.
After my conversation with Eva, I had kept on wondering if the lesson wasn’t a larger one. Burkeman’s article finally supplied with a clue: The aforementioned paralysis, which has us clinging to the status quo rather than use opportunities is a mere avoidance mechanism of future fear. Embracing the prospect of failure whilst pushing aside those possible future regrets may just be what is required to grab ahold of opportunities –however large or small.
Yes, dwelling on past mistakes is often irresistible, simply because we are hard-wired to look back on what happened in order to remember, relive and reconsider. But we can’t spend the present fearing a future with regretful memories of the past – doing so creates a vortex of not just too many timeframes but that is also deeply counterproductive.