Much of our lives are defined by regret. The one who got away. The job opportunity we missed. The words we never said.
A certain amount of regret can be healthy. It reminds us what’s important. It teaches us to be proactive, assertive, honest, kinder, present. But regret is also toxic. Fixating on the past can cause us to make choices out of fear or obligation. It can destroy the present.
In chaos theory, there’s a concept called the Butterfly Effect. It essentially means one small change can have large effects later. The name comes from Edward Lorenz’s example of a butterfly’s flapping wings influencing the formation and path of a tornado. While the butterfly is just a metaphor, Lorenz’s experimentation methods are still used today for daily weather forecasts.
In a less scientific sense, we’ve experienced the Butterfly Effect in our own lives. If we only hadn’t left our bag at home. If only we hadn’t changed our route on the way to work. If only we hadn’t asked our friend for that favor. Our actions have consequences, which makes it easy to wonder what would have happened if we’d done things differently.
By looking at the events in our lives through the lens of the Butterfly Effect, we can lift some of the burden of regret. If every small decision or action we make can change the course of events forever, there’s no way to make a wrong decision.
If you hadn’t gone out to dinner in the city that night you wouldn’t have been in that car accident. But if you’re considering cause and effect, you can’t stop there. If you hadn’t met that girl at work, you wouldn’t have moved to the city in the first place. And if you hadn’t accepted that job, you never would have met the girl. If every small decision has a non-linear consequence, there’s no one to blame for the result. And there are many decisions along the way (the girl, the new job) that you wouldn’t necessarily want to change. So what’s left to regret?
Of course, there are times we can’t dismiss regret and shouldn’t. Regretting something we’ve done wrong (or failed to do) shapes us into better people. But no matter the situation, regret doesn’t change the decisions we’ve already made. It can only, hopefully, help us make better ones moving forward. Even then, we have little control over many events in our lives. All we can do is try our best right now.