What is regret? The side-effect of opportunity cost.
It was three years ago that I decided to go on vacation in Japan. I had the money, the time off, and a lifelong inclination to do so. I still think about that trip when I catch a photo of some combini on Reddit or a PR event with a mascot in the press.
As it so happened, my Studio Ghibli-inspired Pandora playlist had a track called “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” on it. It was a remix on a compilation album called, appropriately, Big in Japan. I think I heard that song dozens of times leading up to, and well after, my stay overseas.
(I later discovered that it’s, in fact, the title theme to a 1983 movie starring David Bowie and Beat Takeshi. The movie’s great, but tragic, and different from what the title song would suggest.)
I wanted desperately to go back, so much so that I applied for a position teaching English there. Twice, in fact: once for JET, then for Interac six months later. And … I decided not to go.
Regret is the side-effect of opportunity cost. You can go to a party with your friends on Saturday night, or spend it at a play instead. You regret the choice you didn’t take, no matter how good the choice you made ultimately was.
I think regret is healthy. I think about those choices I made that I didn’t regret, and I wonder how much of a choice I really had.
How’s this for a choice? Abandoning a middling career in web development to go to pursue game programming at a graduate program.
Last year, I was accepted into UCF FIEA, a competitive program in game design. I would pursue an 18-month course for a Master’s degree, an internship to be lined up with a major game publisher (most likely a conglomerate with a two-letter acronym). I would also be in some student debt, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Two things happened. First, I read more about the working conditions of those in the industry (read “EA Spouse” for the most harrowing account), and I balked at not having time for those hobbies that keep me sane.
Second, I was harrassed by a coworker for even having the nerve to leave my last employer to pursue higher education. This person put a lot of pressure on me to switch to a closer college that he happened to work at.
Ultimately, the choice was made for me. I had a nervous breakdown and had to leave work. Without that income, I couldn’t go to school (and I had already turned down FIEA). This was also the time I applied to Interac and subsequently backed out. Things were so bad I had to live with my parents for a few months while I got my life in order.
Things worked out. I found a new job back in web development, in an office that won’t give me anxiety attacks. That middling career has turned out to be not-so-middling anymore, and I no longer fear having to leave it just to support myself.
But do I regret turning down FIEA? Sure. My life would be very different. On the other hand, my health wouldn’t have been any better.
Last month I spent a few days in the hospital, after having some chest pain. I suffered through a coronary vasospasm, a constriction of the arterial walls (think of it like a heart migraine, a cardiologist told me). In fact, I had experienced one several months before, while I was moving out of my apartment and putting my entire life into storage. I thought it was a pulled muscle back then, but some internet research confirmed that I was having angina and needed immediate treatment.
After several thousand dollars of medical bills and some cheap medicine, I’m feeling much better. The risk factors for vasospasms are the same for coronary heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity. Years of lifestyle debt, one could argue.
Years ago, I was much healthier: fifty pounds lighter, able to run an 11-minute mile, and eating a mostly vegetarian diet. I let that go for a relationship, so my lifestyle would mesh better with someone who was so very, very wrong for me.
That regret stings the most.
Regret is an archeological excavation. On the surface you find relatively modern artifacts, bullet casings or spades or nails. You dig further down, discovering tools and shards of pottery from successively older eras. Eventually, from iron age to bronze to stone, you run out of artifacts because the technology simply couldn’t be preserved. You have childhood regrets that you can’t even remember because your brain was still developing.
However, my excavation is different. My regret has an impenetrable bedrock, and its name is Jimmy.
Jimmy was my childhood friend, the earliest neighbor I remember having. Together, we played Super Mario Bros. (both the video game and occasional dress-up), GI Joe, Hide-and-Go-Seek. Jimmy was my best friend at a time when I could still have one of those.
When I was five, his family moved a state away, without notice, and I lost touch.
“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is the sound of my regret. For missed opportunities: a career in game development, years spent teaching overseas. For bad choices. For time wasted. For friendships lost. It is the sound of opportunity cost as it settles on your shoulders, to be carried forever like a weight you will never shake off.