No regrets? Why not?

‘Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not’

Oliver Burkeman column ill 20 June 2015

By:Oliver Burkeman/Uk Gardian

Of all history’s thinkers, I’d say Friedrich Nietzsche provides the second-best example of why you shouldn’t take philosophers as models for how to live. (First place goes to Diogenes of Sinope, infamous for masturbating and defecating in public.) Despite coining the term “übermensch”, Nietzsche was a fragile man, sickly and psychologically tormented, who suffered a terminal mental breakdown after witnessing the beating of a horse, then died at 55, only to have his legacy co-opted by the Nazis, whom he’d have despised. So it was a surprise to see himcited recently in Pacific Standard magazine, by the psychologist Edward Chang, as “better than any pop self-help book” when it comes to living a meaningful and above all regret-free life.

As I suspect you’ll have noticed, many people these days think it’s important to try to live a life of no regrets. This idea is summed up in the phrase “carpe diem”, if you’re old enough to recall Dead Poets Society or ancient Rome, both of which were ages ago, or by the annoying acronym yolo – “you only live once” – if you’re not. According to this philosophy, you should always take the plunge and quit your stultifying job; ask that person on a date; or (in the lower reaches of yolo culture) empty a carton of milk over your head and post the video on YouTube, all to forestall an old age full of stinging regrets. I can’t be alone in finding this all rather stressful, not least because regret seems inevitable: choosing any path always means rejecting others. So how to choose? We’re glibly told you regret the things you don’t do, not the ones you do. But this is meaningless, since any bold choice can always be rephrased as a timid one. By leaving your marriage, you opted not to discover what might happen if you’d bravely stuck it out.

Which is where our moustachioed horse-lover comes in. “My formula for greatness in a human being,” Nietzsche wrote in a chapter splendidly entitled Why I Am So Clever, “is amor fati” – Latin for “love of one’s fate”. He wanted, he explained, “to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth!” Amor fati is all about living with no regrets, but not in the modern way. Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means (among other things) learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not. After all, if a given aspect of life is truly “necessary”, refusing to embrace it means rejecting reality. And what could be more truly necessary than the past, which has already happened and can’t be undone?

Once you grasp this, the modern mantra of “no regrets” begins to look not courageous but fear-based: a desperate, panicky effort to avoid future sadness. By contrast, and paradoxically, amor fati offers a more full-throated way of overcoming regret: by accepting it. It’s not a matter of making bold choices “before it’s too late”, but rather of seeing that it’s already too late, and always has been. This is deeply liberating. You only live once. Why waste it trying to have no regrets?