“What’s your biggest regret?” It’s always one of those million-dollar questions in interviews, or in magazines, or on the Humans of New York facebook page (if you don’t follow that, you should – it’s amazing). If any of you are anything like me, you get caught up sometimes thinking about what might have been, or whether things would be different if you’d just, or feeling bad about the time you wasted when. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that things that seem bad when we look back at them were total mistakes, or that something we’re enjoying now we should have started earlier.I sometimes regret staying in publishing for four years, and not starting my Masters sooner. I wonder if I regret staying in a relationship for three years when I was younger, when the guy was clearly an idiot and no good for me. I wish I’d started dancing when I first came to London, because by now I’d be really really good.
I went to see the film Wild recently, which is about a woman who has made mistakes and done lots of things that she thinks she regrets. But in the end, she says to herself: If I could go back, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. Because everything I did brought me to this place. What if I forgive myself? This sounds cheesy and like something out of Psychologies magazine. But really, it’s true. If I hadn’t done those jobs in publishing, I wouldn’t have met some great people who I still see regularly several years later. I might not yet have discovered the author Patrick Rothfuss, or indeed have EVER discovered Patrick Rothfuss (and that is terrifying). I started my Masters at the time when I felt ready to do it – I needed time out from university after my degree, and if I’d started it at any other time, I wouldn’t have met the people I did meet, and am meeting, and that would be a loss. If I’d tried to go dancing when I first came to London, I might have been too intimidated after one or two classes (considering that walking down the street in London was frightening for me at the time) and I might have got put off and never gone back.
That early relationship is a more difficult thing not to regret, because it’s harder to pinpoint what I gained from it. Often the one thing I can palpably take away from relationships is new music, which sounds trite but actually often has a big influence on me. I wouldn’t have got heavily into Pink Floyd without this boyfriend. I might never have listened to King Crimson. I wouldn’t have applied for, and won, Live 8 tickets. A recent abortive non-relationship may look from the outside like a total waste of time, but I found a couple of new bands through it, and was introduced to a film I liked so much I bought it for my Dad for his birthday.
In a way, I think it’s impossible to regret anything because so many things are hinged on the tiniest movements of fate, or chance, or whatever you want to call it. My favourite story to illustrate this is: I would not be sitting here if I hadn’t watched The Pianist in the summer between GCSEs and A Levels. The sixth form college I was going to had three history programs, Medieval, Tudor, and Modern, and for some reason I was down to do Tudor. But I watched The Pianist, and it changed my mind. Somehow I’d got to the age of 16 in the British education system without ever being taught about the Nazis, so although I knew the basic facts (I still remember in year 2, aged about 6, in a game about numbers, the number on the wall ‘6 million’ as the number of Jews killed by the Nazis, and not getting my head around it at all – I still haven’t) I’d never been taught why they hated the Jews so much. The particular scene which struck me like a hammer was when the Nazis go into a Jewish house, and order everyone around the table to stand. But there’s an old man in a wheelchair that physically can’t. So they tip him out of the window. All I could think was “WHY?”. So I switched my course to Modern history, which was about the Nazis and then the Russians. I had a teacher who showed me what learning history is supposed to be like: not dry and dull and difficult, but invigorating and intriguing and endlessly, endlessly interesting. I was down to do English Literature at university but after I got a decent AS level in history I switched. Without watching that film I probably wouldn’t have known how bottomless-ly fascinating I find history, studied it at university, and gone on to study it at Masters level. It’s very odd to think how much of my life twists on the decision to rent The Pianist from the local library (don’t close the libraries!!).
So really, how can I regret any of the things that, in retrospect, seem like mistakes? Something tiny that happened because of one of those people, times or places might have triggered something else which is now something I enjoy, or led me to meet somebody who is now very important to me. Like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I wouldn’t do anything differently – because who knows where I would be if I had? Of course, if I had done English at university, maybe I would have met the love of my life by now, and maybe I’d have worked out what career I’m supposed to be doing and be cracking on with it. But it’s pointless to speculate, because it’s all a fiction. And, quite likely, I wouldn’t. Possibly I’d have dropped out of university because literary criticism makes me want to kill people, and I’d still be living with my parents to the point where even they get tired of the sight of me, and I would have no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but be in a much worse place to view it from.
I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m going to be doing or where I’m going to be a year from today. I had hoped that doing this Masters for two years would have given me time to work out what I want to be doing with myself. Apparently it’s not long enough. To some people that makes it seem like a waste of time – people are always asking me what I’ll do afterwards and are shocked that I don’t know, that I’ve spent two years and too much money on this course without a plan for what to do with it. But I can’t regret doing the Masters (and it ain’t over yet) because of the people I’ve met, and the job I’m doing now, and the place I’m living, and that I’m going dancing, and that I’m writing this blog – because it’s very likely that none of those things would have happened if I hadn’t done the Masters. So although I’m terrified that I only have five weeks of classes left, and then just the dissertation, and that the time out I bought myself from life is nearly over, I can’t regret it. And I refuse to think that I’ve wasted it. As one very wise person said, ‘time you have enjoyed is never time wasted.’ As long as whatever you’ve done is what, at the time, you wanted to do, you shouldn’t regret a moment of it.