A friend recently asked me which decision I regret most out of all the decisions I’ve made in my life so far. (I’ve always assumed other people ask their friends questions like this all the time, but I’m starting to suspect that isn’t the case. In any event, the point of this story isn’t to dwell on why he asked the question. We talk about depressing philosophical things regularly.) The first thing that popped into my mind was my decision to buy a condo at the height of the real estate boom in 2006. Anyone who knows me will tell you I love to discuss real estate and, for some reason, I never tire of listing all the reasons why my partner and I never should have bought our current home.
The short version of the story is this: we paid close to $200,000 in 2006. A few months ago, the unit below ours sold for $144,000. To add insult to injury, the unit above us has been on the market for almost two years and its current list price is $149,000.
Dwelling on past mistakes or lamenting circumstances that aren’t the way we’d like them to be must appeal to our brains for some reason. Perhaps my brain thinks if I can just tell one more person how awful this situation is, I’ll have some epiphany about how to dig myself out of it. Or maybe if I beat myself up about it just a little more, I’ll never make that mistake again. Or maybe I just like feeling sorry for myself because it’s easier than doing something about the problem.
Whenever I feel unable to let go of regret over a bad investment or a missed opportunity to make money, the thing that bothers me most is the thought that I’ve wasted time. I know it’s only money and money can always be replaced, but there’s a nagging feeling that I can’t get back the week or the month or the year it took me to earn and save that money.
Eventually, I snap out of it and remember that I’m lucky to be in perfect health. As cliché as it sounds, there really is nothing more valuable. When you’re healthy, you have all the time in the world and you can do whatever you want with that time. You can join the Peace Corps, go back to school, adopt a baby, start a band, or become an astronaut. In the end, no one knows for sure when their time will come. The universe could see fit to let me live to be 120, and in that time I could have experiences that would have taken others two or three lifetimes to accumulate. I could live long enough to become a millionaire, lose it all, and make it all back again.
Of course, I realize at some point I might not always be in perfect health, but that day isn’t today. More importantly, it’s possible that even dying young and wasting time aren’t worth regretting. If there’s life after death, then there’s really no rush to cram in as much adventure and accomplishment as possible into the time we have on Earth. And if life is over when our hearts stop beating, then I should probably accept that I am less important than I think I am, and that my existence is a grain of sand on a beach ten million miles long. And by that logic, the universe probably won’t notice if I squeeze an extra 40 or 50 years out of my life expectancy and visit more places and accumulate more stuff than the average human being.
So, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m going to try very hard to let go of my regrets about the lost money and time that my condo represents. I’m going to be more thankful for my health, and when I’m sick, I’m going to try to remember that time erases every trace of all our accomplishments—from the construction of the pyramids to the time I was second runner up in my third-grade spelling bee. 10,000 years from now, our entire civilization might be forgotten. And even now, the residents of the Alpha Centauri star system have no idea who anyone on Earth is. They’ve never even heard of Oprah, and they probably never will. And if Oprah can’t reach her stubby index finger through a black hole and scratch out “I was here” on the face of some nameless nebula as a permanent record of her existence on the space-time continuum, then nobody can.