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Making Sense of the “No Regrets” Obsession

In its hostility with all forms of remorse, doth our culture protest too much?

The other day someone asked about the scar above one of my incisors, which appears when I smile. I did crew for a minute in high school, just long enough for my boat to drift into another boat, or vice versa—I never found out. There was shouting, and a huge oar ripping toward me. It slammed into my face and I started slipping into the water. Someone grabbed me, and then I was in a motorboat, and then bleeding all over someone’s mom’s backseat on the way to the hospital. Broken nose and gum surgery, mainly. I’m fine now.

After I relayed this story, the guy said, “Bet you regret the day you signed up for crew.” It was a throwaway remark, but I thought about it anyway. Did I regret it? Do I regret anything? I grew up, got married, had kids. Once, I found a hundred-dollar bill under a plum tree. I wouldn’t miss this scar but it seems dangerous to go around regretting things. Yank the wrong thread from your past and maybe the whole tapestry comes apart.

But it’s one thing not to regret something, and another to be all “no regrets” about it. No Regrets is an a priori policy that’s become something of a lifestyle brand: triumphalist and hyper-masculine, faintly corporate, and subtly hollow. It’s also weirdly popular. No Regrets crops up in the form of tattoos, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. Celebrities are apparently required to come up with two to four Pinterestable quotations per year on their lack of regrets. No Regrets is a Long Beach accessories shop and No Regrets is Ace Frehley’s memoir. No Regrets is a Southern California mini-truck club. They’re all about the mini-truck lifestyle and living it to the fullest. The No Regrets Men’s Ministries want an army for Christ. No Regrets Parenting is about time with your kids—finding enough, making the most of it. No Regrets is a 5 BR/3 BA vacation house on Emerald Isle in North Carolina. (Pet-friendly!) There’s a No Regrets stationery store in Oklahoma City and a No Regrets Career Academy, which assures us that, we too, can have the lifestyle we desire, provided we adopt the right “strategies.”

“It means don’t cry over spilled milk,” Clifton, who works at the No Regrets Tattoo Emporium in Memphis, explained to me. Tony, from No Regrets Tattoo in Raleigh, said it means not caring about anything. “Nothing bothers me,” he told me. “Since I got divorced, I’m carefree.” Tyler from No Regrets Tattoo in Oklahoma City said, “I don’t know why they picked that name. I have a shit-ton of regrets.”

Gather enough people making the same declaration and you’ve got a country trying to tell you something. I thought the tattoo parlors might have a handle not just on the proud permanence behind the sentiment, but on its adamantly public aspect as well. The outward insistence of No Regrets confuses me: the startling number of hashtags-per-minute, the sheer acreage of body ink. What about the doctrine begs to be shouted from the rooftops? Why isn’t it just a quiet, private position?

Of course, a general acceptance of one’s past can be a powerful thing, and anything that reminds you to make good choices on a day-to-day basis is lovely. But mostly, No Regrets strikes me as an unanswered-for notion. It’s not just tepid, but fundamentally unclear about its own status. Does it reflect aspiration more than reality, as much-repeated messages tend to do? (I wish I had no regrets!) Or has the culture genuinely defeated the forces of remorse, and the public pronouncements are a kind of victory lap?

No Regrets takes on a darker cast when blown out to a national scale. Wars, colonial conquest, slavery—with a few hard-won exceptions, No Regrets has been the official policy around these, and, who knows, maybe that messes with our heads. Maybe at some level, every defiant No Regrets is a garbled reckoning with the contrite Yes Regrets messages we never hear.

Whatever the answer, I regret rushing my daughter every morning. I regret not squatting on some domain names and I regret not walking on the sunny side of the street more. I regret missing that one flight and I regret not sticking with piano. Certain remarks—Jesus, of course I regret them. And I regret that I never met Tony, the Raleigh tattoo artist who became carefree after his divorce. One day in the ’80s, just out of basic training, he got a tattoo of a big black panther. He was young and stupid. Later, he lasered it off. No regrets. He just wanted something more colorful.

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