From time-travel movies to self-help interviews, the question that supposedly plagues many a life keeps popping up: “Why, oh why, did I do this and not that?”
It’s just human that our great ability to consider scenarios would sometimes make us look back to our past and wonder about the things that could have been.
It would be a great reason to remember that regret usually comes from things we did not do rather than from things we were unsure about, but then decided to risk anyways.
We are helped immensely, there, by the way our memory of experiences is not just stronger than the memory of just about anything else (most of all, possessions), it is also a great story teller able to rationalize and reinterpret many a decision in a more positive light.
Still, regret also exists and makes people wonder what could have been. It makes us think that “What advice would you give your younger self?” is a good question to think about.
I fear it is but another example of how we are not quite at home in the lives we live.
When you think you know just what you should have done some time ago, good though it may be as an exercise for deciding what you now find important, you misunderstand how much life depends on its context.
You would never have done things differently only because someone told you to do so.
Even your own older self would be hard, if not impossible, for you to believe. It is not you, after all. And you probably don’t know what would sway your previous you half as well as you’d like to believe.
We are not that well aware of ourselves, let alone of the ways we have changed from our earlier selves.
Besides, had you been able to see things differently, you would probably have done things differently back then.
Had you done things differently, however, you would not be the same person now; your experiences and your context would have been different – and the advice you would give your younger self would probably be different, as well. Sure, it may be the same, but probably only if it is such vague or general advice that it doesn’t really make any difference.
What is perhaps the most disconcerting about the question, however, is not even how it may misunderstand how a life works, contextually and conditionally.
More than that, it is that this question looks backwards and forgets that it is really about the now and the future.
When someone asks – or when you ask yourself – what you would tell your younger self, what you wish you had done differently, it is about the lessons you learned, as well as the ways you want to live now so you won’t regret it in the future.
Or so, I would interpret the true intent and best purpose of these questions.
Then, however, it becomes a real challenge.
No longer is it just about some learning you are now comfortable with and would like to have known in a past that is no longer reachable. Rather, it becomes about the life you want to live right now, where you can actually do something and change things.
Everything that you have done before has led you to the point where you are now; had things been any different, you would be different now. Maybe you wouldn’t even be around to read this now. That is all that made you, now.
There is nothing you can change about that, nothing you should want to change or you would not be yourself. Instead, you would just end up wanting to change other things.
What, however, have you learned? What does this learning make you want to do differently, now?
Now is the time you can heed those lessons, after all, and now is the time you are creating your future.
Here and now, then, is your chance to change things, to do things so you won’t regret them.
Will you rise to the challenge?