The Marginalian
The Marginalian

George Saunders on How to Live an Unregretting Life

George Saunders on How to Live an Unregretting Life

The price we pay for being children of chance, born of a billion bright improbabilities that prevailed over the staggering odds of nothingness and eternal night, is the admission of our total cosmic helplessness. We have various coping mechanisms for it — prayer, violence, routine — and still we are powerless to keep the accidents from happening, the losses from lacerating, the galaxies from drifting apart.

Because our locus of choice is so narrow against the immensity of chance, nothing haunts human life more than the consequences of our choices, nothing pains more than the wistful wish to have chosen more wisely and more courageously — the chance untaken, the love unleapt, the unkind word in the time for tenderness. Regret — the fossilized fangs of should have sunk into the living flesh of is, sharp with sorrow, savage with self-blame — may be the supreme suffering of which we are capable. It poisons the entire system of being, for it feeds on the substance we are made of — time, entropic and irretrievable. It tugs at our yearning for, in James Baldwin’s perfect words, “reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error” and stings with the reminder that eventually “one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.”

Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

There is, therefore, no mightier spell against unhappiness than moving through the present in a way that preempts regret in the future — with integrity, with humility, with wholeheartedness.

That is what George Saunders reckons with in some lovely passages from his prophetic 2007 essay collection The Braindead Megaphone (public library).

In one of those tangents that give the essay form its fractal splendor, he writes:

You know that feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away… That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?


At the end of my life, I know I won’t be wishing I’d held more back, been less effusive, more often stood on ceremony, forgiven less, spent more days oblivious to the secret wishes and fears of the people around me.

In a sentiment he would later deepen in his moving 2013 Syracuse commencement address, he adds:

So what is stopping me from stepping outside my habitual crap?

My mind, my limited mind.

The story of life is the story of the same basic mind readdressing the same problems in the same already discredited ways.

In a wonderful aside from another essay, he offers what may be the best recipe for breaking out of the mind’s recursive and limiting stories:

Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.

Couple with artist Maira Kalman’s illustrated meditation on how to find joy on the other side of remorse and Ellen Bass’s superb poem “How to Apologize,” then revisit George Saunders on the courage of uncertainty.

Published March 11, 2024




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