Darling, Should I Cry Over Spilled Milk?

Never cry over spilt milk when not losing the cow

Posted Nov 06, 2009

"There is no sense in crying over spilt milk. Why bewail what is done and cannot be recalled?" (Sophocles)

"Never cry over spilt milk, because it may have been poisoned." (W. C. Fields)

"It doesn't matter how much milk you spill, just so long as you don't lose the cow." (Mark Guilbeau)

Are emotional attitudes such as love liable to harbor regrets or dwell on past alternatives or what might have been? Intellectual considerations assume that this would constitute a waste of time and resources, but lovers quite often do experience regret or mourn lost romantic opportunities. Is there any sense in doing this? Should we sometimes cry over spilled milk?

In a goal-oriented society, which is more typical of an intellectual than an emotional society, the past is of little concern: our gaze is directed at the future, where our goals are located. Such a negative attitude toward the past implies that it is not rational to invest resources in past events and we should rather focus our limited resources on future goals. Accordingly, repudiation of the past is a prevalent criterion of rational, intellectual decision making. The negative intellectual attitude toward the past is expressed in various sayings that refer to past failures ("No use crying over spilled milk"), successes ("Don't rest on your laurels"), and events in general ("What's done is done.")

In emotional attitudes, past circumstances of the agent are of great import. Although the past seems to be unchangeable and irremediable, our attitudes toward past events, and hence the impact of the past upon us, is significant. As Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." Sometimes we should cry over spilled milk, otherwise how will we learn to value milk and how will we avoid spilling it again? One of the best ways to take account of the past is to take account of our emotions, as emotions are shaped by, among other things, past events. The importance of the issue of the availability of an alternative in emotions, that is, what might have been, indicates the importance for emotions of the past.

In describing factors which generate emotional intensity, I have distinguished between two major groups, one referring to the perceived impact of the event eliciting the emotional state and the other to background circumstances of the agents involved in the emotional state. The major variables constituting the event's impact are the strength, reality, and relevance of the event; the major variables constituting the background circumstances are accountability, readiness, and deservingness. Accountability refers to the descriptive issue of who was responsible for the emotional change; readiness refers to the agent's preparedness for the change; deservingness refers to the normative issue of whether the agent has deserved the specific emotional change (see here).

Although the reference to background circumstances may seem to be redundant in our current situation, it has a great functional value in preventing or encouraging future similar experiences. Thus, the more effort we invested in something, the more significant it becomes and the more intense is the emotion surrounding it. As the saying goes: the more you pay, the more it is worth. Hence, the efficiency of the tactic of playing hard to get (see here).

Emotions toward the past are in this sense similar to emotions toward fictional figures. In both cases, the motivational component is present but it is basically focused on our imaginary behavior. Both emotional impact of the past, and the impact of the art seem to be of no practical use, but in fact, they are of great value in shaping our personality and future deeds. The "road not taken" is as significant as the one we ultimately choose

The importance of the past in romantic relationships is associated with the value of a shared history in loving relationship. This shared history is very important in friendship, which is an important part in romantic love. The circumstances in which two people first met and each person's behavior, attitudes, and experiences in the different periods of their time together are indeed important features in the formation of their romantic love toward each other.
However, focusing all our attention on the past would prevent us from seeing the present and the future. So a balance must be struck between the spilled milk and that which is before us now, which we still have to drink. It is evident that it can be destructive to give too much weight and attention to our past failures and successes, but neglecting the past can be equally destructive.

In certain cases, it is unwise to cry over spilled milk. When one loving relationship ends, there is no reason to continue to live in the past; in many cases, the best route to take is to look forward to the next meaningful relationship. The demise of one love does not imply the end of one's love life. However, our lives would be very shallow and greatly reduced if we were to attempt to blot out the past.

To achieve a balance between the past and the future requires us to integrate our emotional attitudes, which are largely based upon past experience, and our intellectual deliberations, which focus on the future. The integration of the past into the present and the future is highly important if we are to lay the groundwork for a happy and satisfied future.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, although I love you for who you are, please also remember that I was lonely and depressed when we first met and in such circumstances, I would have fallen in love with almost anyone. And one more thing: I do try (albeit not always successfully) to forget the one who dumped me."