Eat your words


Or why we must swallow our regrets like a bitter pill

Eat your words.

As an idiom, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Because it means you’re wrong, take back what you said, admit to have had your foot in your mouth.

But regret is food for thought. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it you must at the risk of having to throw it up. Regret is the meat and potatoes of a well-examined life, though admittedly it is also a pitfall in which you might be stuck.

You may regret retrospectively, looking at the life you have lived as a result of a choice you made in the past against the life you could have lived if you chose differently.

Or you may regret anticipatively or prospectively looking at the choices you are facing at a particular moment and taking your pick based on whether or not you will be in a pickle for choosing one over the other.

I am afraid I am most guilty of anticipative regret, of which as a result I sometimes feel paralyzed. While I do look back a lot and wonder how my life could have panned out differently, I am mostly at peace with the choices I have already made. Peace comes to those who recognize that there is no turning back. I might have made wrong choices that put me in the here and now, but there is no way I can find out for sure if I could have been better off—or worse off—had I not made the mistakes.

Words on the menu Eat Your Words, A Fascinating Look at the Language of Food cover illustration

And so I pine over outcomes I may regret or celebrate should I reveal a hidden love, accept a potentially dangerous offer, go where I’ve never been, leave some big part of me behind, turn a new leaf.

In the school of life, regret is a fundamental lesson. It is food for the soul. Often misunderstood, it is overpowered by common philosophies haphazardly worded as “No regrets” or “Don’t cry over spilled milk” and, without much thought, considered useless, an unnecessary burden in a world obsessed with the exteriors of shiny, happy (successful) people.

May my words be ever soft and low, for I may have to eat them. —Norman Lamont

We might have misinterpreted Friedrich Nietzsche when he said, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.” In two words and, minus sufficient contemplation, he might have meant “No regrets,” summing up the concept amor fati, or love of fate, the unconditional acceptance of the life one is given.

And yet, in as much as he prescribed amor fati, the predecessor of what we now refer to as YOLO (You only live once), Nietzsche endeavored to free us out of the iron cage of daily life, in which we struggle only to emerge unfazed, unharmed, unaffected by negative people, things, events, or thoughts. Think positive, they say, no time for anything negative. To the German philosopher, mortality was the burden against which we could measure our meaning, our successes, our joys, the extent to which we live life, short as it is (and therefore must be lived fully).

SWALLOW YOUR PRIDE Beppe Giacobbe's illustration portraying intelligence on his first monograph Visionary Dictionary: Beppe Giocabe from A to Z

Regret is a shadow I can only choose to ignore. It follows me to the restaurant, where I preempt it while pondering over the ribeye or the salmon on the menu. It is perched on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, while I am trying to word what I have to say in a way that will be least damaging to me or the person to whom I have to say it. It is a memory that serves as a directional signboard when I find myself at a crossroads. It is a trauma I try every day to recover from either by staring it in the face or running away at first glimpse of it on the horizon. It glowers at me or smiles at me in the mirror when I decide at any given moment whether to beat myself up or give myself a pat in the back.

So I follow Nietzsche, if it means going this way and that in one go. I accept my fate, and yet I try not to succumb to indecision. I seize the day while holding myself back, or hold myself back while seizing the day. I dwell in the past, yet I keep my eye out on the future. But I do things I regret later on. I don’t see how you can say I did it my way, if you happen to be so careful, so unwilling to take risks, afraid to be wrong. Courage is a cousin of regret. You need to be bold enough to risk regretting something later on. No regrets is the best friend of playing safe.

Be that as it may, you must try not to have to eat your words. You must be guided by a moral code that makes you worth your salt whatever you do. You cannot say this when you mean there. When you promised to be here, you cannot go there. When you say now, you cannot mean tomorrow. You can’t say sorry so things go back to normal. You can’t just say OK so the moment passes with no trouble. You must mean what you say, or you will have to eat your own words.