Every man has his demons, if you don’t it’s either because you are very young or haven’t lived. We all are guaranteed one thing in life and that is the experience of subconscious whispers and nags, that take the form of an uneasiness associated with the past.
You can regret the things that you’ve done, and also regret the things that you haven’t done. Regret can be a pointer to wisdom.
The strange thing is that when the mind is busy with the day’s work, these subtle whispers never seem to make it to the top of your awareness for full inspection by your consciousness, it’s always when the room is quiet when you put your feet up and that glass of whisky is to hand, or worse yet when your head hits your pillow and you find yourself unable to sleep. When the mind is unoccupied the subconscious speaks with the loudest voice. This is why solitary confinement is considered to be a harsh punishment even for the toughest of prisoners. Most men do not have peace of mind. If you don’t have peace of mind then being alone with your thoughts can be one of the greatest cruelties, because you are at their raging mercy.
So how do the stoics handle regret?
Well, the first step is to accept them, acknowledge that your actions didn’t turn out for the best and resolve not to behave that way again. Your actions might have been deliberate in which case you now know the way to virtue and can avoid doing it again.
If you regret the consequences of actions that you believed were the right things to do at the time, then chalk it up to experience and remind yourself that you are not perfect and that at least you tried to do the right thing. You should never regret the application of virtue when the application of vice could have been so easy.
If there’s still time, take steps to correct your unwise actions of the past, if there’s no longer any time then you must face your demons and agree with their conclusions, that back in the day you weren’t good enough, but if those circumstances come again, you will be, which was a fact not wasted on our noble Stoic emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
“Choose not to feel harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Finally, in our pursuit of virtue, we should always be willing to change.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
All quotes taken from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius