If someone asked you about your biggest fear, do you know what you would say?
I was asked this question during a leadership seminar my freshman year. Since I wasn’t trying to get super personal in a room full of strangers, I think I said I was most afraid of jellyfish. I played it off as a joke, highlighting that it was a little irrational for someone studying marine science to be afraid of jellyfish. Others had similar answers- poisonous snakes, spiders, etc. One person said clowns. Most answers were played off casually, and we quickly moved on to the next question.
In hindsight, my answer was a little ridiculous. I’m not that afraid of jellyfish. I can’t say I’m particularly fond of them, but it’s not like I lay awake at night dreading my next possible jellyfish encounter. If they were actually my biggest fear, perhaps marine science is the wrong career path for me.
I did, however, revisit the question later that night. What was my biggest fear? What immediately came to mind was some kind of world wide pandemic. Maybe my biggest fear was a nuclear war or losing someone I love unexpectedly. All sorts of horrible circumstances ran through my mind as I tried to figure out what exactly frightened me more than anything else.
After nearly driving myself crazy with all kinds of fantastical situations, I realized that none of those things were actually my biggest fear. It hit me that what I was most afraid of was something else entirely.
My biggest fear is regret. No, it’s not disease or war or crime that troubles me most. What keeps me awake at night is the thought that I might look back on my life and wonder, “what if?”. Of course, I’m afraid of those things I mentioned to some degree, but they all have one thing in common: they’re out of my control. If there was a nuclear war headed my way, there’s nothing I could do to stop it. So what’s the sense worrying about it?
We can’t prevent sadness or avoid challenges in our lives. But what we can do is make the most of what we are given and never miss the opportunity to achieve happiness. Those who are fulfilled are those who can look back at their lives with a sense of peace.
I think it’s important to note that my definition of “regret” may differ from the common perception. I’m not saying that I’m afraid of making mistakes (talk about an irrational fear). There will always be things that I look back on and wish I hadn’t said or done, and that’s only natural. Making mistakes is a part of the growing process, one that is especially important during our college years. But true regret results when we do not forgive ourselves and learn from our mistakes. Most importantly, true regret results when we stop treating ourselves with respect.
My next thought was this: how can I save myself from regret? My answer came to me as I drove home after my first semester freshman year. I was reflecting back over my first few months at college- all the late nights, new friends, and challenging classes. Then I mulled over the mistakes I had made- that time I didn’t take my Psych test seriously enough, when I got too wrapped up in dorm drama, when I dated the wrong guy. As I struggled to make sense of the rewarding yet emotional semester, I asked myself one simple question.
Am I happy?
The answer came to me immediately: yes. Despite the ups and downs of the semester, I could honestly say that I was proud of what I had achieved and hopeful for what lie ahead.
My formula for dealing with regret is simple. If you can say you are happy where you are at this exact moment in time, there is no reason for regret. That is because where you are now is a direct result of all of your triumphs and mistakes, your ups and downs. If you’re unhappy where you are now, find out what it is that is standing in the way of your happiness, and change it.
It takes way too much energy to worry about problems that are out of our control. We can’t protect ourselves from every possible threat, which is all the more reason we need to focus on something we can change: our happiness. Take the time to ask yourself, “Am I happy?” and answer honestly. Because life is too short to continue on a path that makes you unhappy.
Trust me, you’ll regret it.