Regret and Nostalgia

As I'm trying to make sense of how to live in the moment, one relevant and powerful motivation that keeps coming up is preventing future regret. We make mistakes, we learn from them, and avoid repeating them. The regret I'm talking about is looking back to a certain time and being unhappy with my decisions. Thus, it can conflict with living in the moment because you don't want your future self to look back and feel bad. It's something that makes us human, thinking long term. I hate the feeling of regret so much that I either suppress it or I make decisions that will prevent it, which can be a difficult and costly way to live. Similarly, nostalgia is a curious way of living. "I'm looking forward to looking back on this moment." Surely, memories are a great source of life satisfaction, but looking in the rearview mirror can make you miss what's in front of you. Regret and nostalgia are curious drivers when the present becomes overwhelming.

Living in the moment versus living for the moment. There's a difference between being present and being short sighted. One characteristic that makes us human is our ability to deny ourselves of instant gratification. Instead of following our hearts like animals, we can say no right now in support of a greater cause later. We make sacrifices in the present in order to reap rewards later.

The J Curve illustrates short term suffering for long term rewards.

Last weekend, I went to see my favourite band, Explosions in the Sky, in Vancouver, and it was amazing. Most people haven't heard of them, but EITS fans instantly connect when they discover each other. They're a good bunch. Alas, heading into the show, I asked myself whether I should record videos and take a bunch of pictures so I could enjoy it later. That is, should I sacrifice the pleasure of the show so I could indulge in nostalgia for years afterwards? I decided to try enjoying the show without pictures, and I had a great time. It ended sooner than I would have liked, but that is life.

I was supposed to see Explosions in the Sky three years ago in Calgary, but then the flood happened the day of their show at Sled Island. I was traumatized. I was so excited to see them with Carrie. I kept checking the time, planned to leave work early, and I was texting Carrie all morning about it. Then the #yycflood2013 happened. I've had a hole in my heart for three years; an explosion in my heart, you might say.

After the show, I felt bad that I didn't have much to look back on except for one video. I worried I had made a mistake. If I can't keep enjoying the show by looking back at pictures and videos, then why bother going in the first place? Simple. If I had spent the entire show with my camera out like I have in the past, then I would have missed a lot of good moments. As great as the iPhone's camera is, its pictures and videos are but a slim approximation of the beauty in front of it. Surely, life has been made better by sharing media socially, but there's a limit to that. I took a few pictures and one video, which was nice because I could make a friend jealous, but mostly, I focused on the intense sound quality. They sound great live. We ran into some friends from Edmonton too, so it was just a great moment to share with them. As a young lad, I shot a lot of videos for weddings, skits, plays, etc., and you never really get to enjoy the event if you're that person. People are sitting, chatting with friends, pondering life's mysteries, and the cameraman is always wondering if he has the best angle, whose view he's blocking, and when he'll finally get to sit down. Surely, taking videos is one way of sacrificing in the moment for future enjoyment, but it's not always a great trade-off. Enjoy the experience while you can and then move on to the next thing. Abusing nostalgia can prevent you from enjoying the much more vibrant present.

Regret was a major theme for me in getting laser eye surgery a few years back. A friend recently got it, and it reminded me of a post I drafted on the topic but never published. I hated my glasses. I don't care for the fashion or expense. They would get bent out of shape, and I would get pretty bad eye strain using a computer at work and school and then using a smartphone everywhere. My eyes hated me for staring through a narrow window into yet another narrow window. I still played sports regularly at the time, so they often got bent out of shape. I hated how you couldn't fall asleep on the couch watching TV without damaging your glasses. There were a lot of little reasons for me to despise my glasses, and I didn't want to regret my life if I had the opportunity to fix the problem once and for all with laser eye surgery.

I got the free consultation, where they told me I was eligible for both LASIK and PRK. LASIK is where they cut a flap in the eye, lift it, laser it, then put the flap back down. PRK is where they laser off the surface of the eye to reshape its curvature. Recovery was slower with PRK -- a few weeks compared to a weekend with LASIK. Most people who opt for LASIK get the surgery on Friday and return to work on Monday. Price and surgical risk were equal with either option, so it took me about a week to pore over all the variables.

There were a lot of different perspectives (Get it? Like a point of view.) on even getting the surgery at all. I asked everyone I knew who had gotten laser before. They all raved about it and would do it again even if it cost twice as much. Nostalgic. One person's surgery went poorly, even with one of the best surgeons in the city. Regret. The people who decided against laser told me their optometrists and opticians considered it but ultimately wouldn't risk it because you only have one set of eyes. However, those professionals have a clear vested interest in your vision staying bad, so I was surprised when those people missed the conflict of interest. The eye doctors had successfully cast future regret onto their patients.

I chose PRK because I didn't want to go with LASIK and regret it. I know how neurotic I can be, and if I had gone with the LASIK option, I would have spent my entire life looking around, trying to see the edges of the flap they cut in my eye as if it were a window frame. It's clearly impossible to do, but I knew myself well enough then to see that I would drive myself crazy if I had gotten LASIK. Afterwards, my right eye healed fine, but it took an entire year for the left to recover because of my poor health and immune system, with visits to the clinic every couple weeks. I also had to get the laser redone on the left so the epithelial cell layer would heal over better. I know most people wouldn't take that risk because that's an unreasonable amount of trouble for them to go through in order to prevent regret, but they also don't have my neurotic mind. Even after all those extra visits and time spent recovering, I don't have any regrets. My vision is 20/15 😎, and I haven't looked back since.

"I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now." - Edna Mode

Truthfully, I don't care for nostalgia. Remember back in the day when things were "better?" Never mind that the brain deletes or suppresses old painful memories. It's fine to visit those fond memories, but you have to snap back to reality (oh, there goes gravity). I do sometimes miss my family and have nostalgia for when we did get along, but it's not going to force my decisions today to recreate the past. I'm much more concerned with accepting the present, as ugly as it is, and deciding from there.

The more powerful motivation for me is regret. It's done a lot of good for me, but I worry that it dominates my decision-making. It's hard for me to actually admit when I actually regret some previous decisions, even little things. I didn't pack my speaker to Vancouver so we could listen to some of Explosions' music in the hotel, and that regret was really painful considering how far I had come to listen to good music. It's a very rigid and difficult way to live. I think that's why I'm a buy-it-for-life kind of person. I don't want to regret my purchases, and I don't want to have to keep fixing the same problem. Buy some good shoes, then move on. If you buy the cheaper imitation product, you might regret it later when it fails at the job you bought it for. I think that's why I'm also tackling my mental health issues head on right now: I don't want to have them blow up on me again. However, avoiding the regret could be more costly than the supposed negative outcome, so at some point, I'll have to learn to simply accept the reality presented to me and move on.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le