How Fear of Regret Is Sabotaging Our Communities

Over the years, I’ve done lots of home renovations. Its hard living through the noise, the dirt, the inevitable overages, the subcontractors who skip town with a job half finished, always having to be dressed before 7AM. Despite all those issues, the most difficult part is the unrelenting nature of the decisions. The seemingly unending series of choices that have to be made about colors, fabrics, doorknobs, countertops, which mezuzah to hang, how high to hang the mezuzah, where the hell is the doorpost in my open-plan kitchen…it can be soul crushing. And the anxiety that washes over us when making all of those choices, is not about the choices themselves. In the moment, one color seems to stand out, one doorknob feels best in our hand. The anxiety, which gets worse after the decision is made, is always about the road not taken. It is a fear of feeling regret.
In prospect theory, which attempts to scientifically break down decision making, this is explained by the idea that losses hurt more than gains feel good. It explains how we can do a huge kitchen renovation which improves the value of our house and the quality of our life, and then obsess over the paint being a bit too blue. This same fact is exploited by the electronics industry to no end. We buy a new phone/computer/television, and it immediately becomes obsolete, as a newer, better machine comes on the market. These new models with incremental improvements are designed to take advantage of our feelings of regret and entice us to buy the next newest thing if only to temporarily quiet our anguish.
If we feel this kind of stress around deciding door styles and whether to get the new iPhone, the real important choices can lead to total paralysis.

Where should I go to school?
What should my career path be?
When should I have children? How many?
How do I know if he’s the one?

This last question I got asked a lot during the years when many of my peers were getting married. Most had experienced that initial excitement of meeting and beginning a relationship with someone new. They had also seen that excitement wane and turn to annoyance or disgust or just plain boredom. How did they know that this new relationship wouldn’t eventually go the way of the others? How could they tell that this was a choice they wouldn’t regret?

Not all that long ago decisions about whom to marry were largely left to parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. If they chose the wrong partner, it was their fault. No matter how unpleasant the spouse, it didn’t reflect on you and your decision making capabilities, because the decision was imposed on you from above. And, one could argue, there was less regret involved because of that lack of responsibility. Today, if we fail, we fail alone. We made the decision by ourselves, and that poor choice reflects on us as individuals. In the modern day scenario, a regrettable choice in a spouse means you were a poor judge of character, or even worse, that you don’t really know yourself.
When my friends asked me how you “know” if he’s the one, I had a very unromantic answer. What goes through your mind when you’re arguing? Is it, “I think we might be breaking up?” Or is it, “I can’t believe how annoying he’s being. He really needs to work on communication/arriving on time/expressing his feelings?” Once he goes from being the new boyfriend trying out for the part of long term partner and becomes the annoying relative who you love for his foibles as well as his attributes, you’re ready to contemplate marrying him.
In the Jewish community, we have fear of regret in spades. We “shul shop” for years on end, afraid to pull the trigger because no place is perfect. When we do join a community, we lay in wait for someone to make a mistake, and our first reaction when something goes wrong is to threaten to leave, make a clean break, because we are inundated with regret. This contributes to a vicious cycle where we are increasingly alone as we shut out one community after another. It makes our individual blunders feel ever more impactful and potentially devastating. And the larger Jewish community suffers for our indecision. Leadership roles go unfilled, and programs are cut for lack of capital, human and otherwise.
But there could be a remedy to the regret. It would require just a touch of self-deception. Once we have made a choice, we need to willfully imagine that there is no going back. Every time my husband drives me crazy, I could simply trade him in for a new one. Being part of a family makes those decisions a whole lot more grave than deciding to buy the latest gadget and get rid of the old one, even if its glitchy. Community is the same. Whenever we feel frustrated with the latest policy change/staffing decision/miscommunication – we should pretend for a moment that we are stuck. That the myriad choices available to us have, for the moment, disappeared. Because this, more than anything, will force us to engage. To try and make those institutions into places that reflect our own values, fulfill our own needs.
Communities (and families) are messy. Even my kids know that they have to take turns choosing favorite music on long car trips. My high-schooler tolerates her littlest brother’s Sesame Street CD because that’s what it means to be part of a family. The comfort, love and support we get trump always getting our way. And, when I pretend not to be looking, they’re all singing “C is for Cookie” at the top of their lungs in the backseat.
Regret will fade. In time, we remember what drew us to this community in the first place. Why we fell in love with our spouse. How the old dishwasher never really got the dishes clean. Because even with all those seductive choices out there, none will ever be perfect. And they don’t need to be. They just need to feel like home.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.