There is only one line from one movie that has ever brought me to the brink of existential crisis:
“So … do you want to take a leap of faith … or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?”
Uttered twice in Christopher Nolan’s perception-bending Inception, this line has haunted me since I first saw the film in theaters. Every so often, it pops into my life again, whether because I’ve entered the dream-state of watching the film or just by happenstance. And each time, it shakes me to the core of my being and leaves me evaluating an unsatisfying life.
It’s easy to talk about, to invoke “YOLO” or Carpe Diem or some other trite motto, slap a tattoo on your arm that says No
Regerts Regrets, and pay lip service to the idea that you’ve lived a full life with nothing held back.
But let’s get real here. We all have regrets. We all wish that we’d taken an opportunity that has passed us by. We long for the one that got away. We wish we hadn’t eaten that slice of cake (“a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”)—or that we had, in fact, eaten that slice of cake we turned down. Our lives are a string of unfortunate decisions that intertwine and compound and it is only through forcing ourselves to accept and move past our mistakes that we are able to maintain our sanity.
Why is that, though? I think part of the reason for this internal struggle is because we’re hard-wired to create narratives out of our experience. If you look at your life as just a disjointed sequence of events, there’s really nothing to regret: you made a decision, it had an outcome, you move on. No emotional attachment. It worked or it didn’t work. My dogs don’t regret their decisions. A computer doesn’t linger over whether a zero should have really been a one. But humans, we’re different. We construct our reality into a narrative that ascribes meaning to moments and decisions and outcomes. And we want that narrative to be a good one, where we’re the hero and we have a happy outcome. And that desire is where we run into problems.
Look back at my blog post from yesterday, about how I’m putting this summer to use unlike previous summers. That entire post is about regret. Regret over being so disgustingly overweight for so long, for backtracking in the last six months, and for struggling to get back into healthy habits. Frustrating over the squandering of my educational background in creative writing and my inability to follow through on the projects I want to start. Reservations over the career path I find myself on and doubts as to my ability to succeed in that field—or even get hired. Self-loathing from my stunted development in terms of interpersonal relationships. And the oppressive march of time hanging over my head.
Whenever I hear that quote, it resonates with the tortured part of my soul that recognizes that the only thing separating me from that fate is age, and the woeful resignation to the fact that even if I had a leap of faith to take I would in all likelihood let it pass me by.