The subject of regret has been on my mind after a month of disturbed insomniac nights as I began my recovery from a broken femur (thigh bone) and surgery. My focus is now on physical therapy and the slow return to normal. However, those early, rather depressing weeks got me rethinking an essay I wrote five years ago on regret. What follows is a much-revised version.
We treasure our regrets. It ought to make no sense. Why cling to sorrow? But to have no regrets is never to have contemplated one’s own actions. Call it a corollary of Socrates’ maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living.
What exactly is regret? I count four ways in which we look back with sadness: regret itself, disappointment, frustration and remorse. We tend to lump them all together in the word “regret,” but breaking down which of the four we experience when a painful memory surfaces might help put it in perspective.
In “Consciousness, Will & Responsibility,” an article that has unfortunately disappeared from the Internet, Chris D. Frith writes:
We must distinguish between regret and disappointment. Both feelings occur when we discover the outcome of our actions. We are disappointed if the outcome is worse than we expected. We experience regret if we discover that the outcome would have been better if only we had chosen a different action.
I might be disappointed if I did my best but still got a low score on a job entrance exam, say for the city’s police department, but that isn’t regret. Regret would be if I joined the police and later wished I’d applied to the fire department.
A third way of looking back with sadness is what I will name frustration: when we tried but events intervened. Disappointment is about our own limitations; frustration about external circumstances.
News first broke of the 9/11 attacks just after my now wife left for work. I raced down our apartment building’s stairway to catch her before she reached the subway to downtown Manhattan, but, a fast walker, she was long gone. Had I got down in time, I would have saved her from a degree of trauma even above what all New Yorkers experienced that day.
The fourth way we look back with sadness is remorse, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” Remorse, then, adds to regret the element of guilt, whether or not deserved.
To illustrate some of these distinctions, I go back to an agonizing situation many years ago when I was hospitalized on an orthopedic ward. I was assigned a room with a man who had attempted suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. He lost a leg and an arm, while his other leg and arm were restrained in traction. Each day his psychiatrist came to see him, and each time the patient demanded to be allowed to die.
At the risk of appearing coldly analytical, his situation helps clarify the different forms of looking back with sadness. He rued his suicide attempt not because he’d regained his desire to live, but because he’d failed in his determination to die. That was disappointment. Regret would have been if he’d wished he hadn’t made that attempt. It was also frustration because fate got in the way and kept him alive. Finally, he surely inflicted distress on the subway train’s operator, for which he might, and I would argue should, have felt remorse.
And the train’s operator? Logically, he had no cause for regret of any kind because he had no part in the patient’s decision. He just happened to be the one driving the train. But chances are he felt guilty about it. In “What’s the Use of Regret?” Gordon Marino writes: “Objectively at least, we can’t regret something we couldn’t help, but we can still feel remorseful because we played an unwitting role.”
Four painful ways, then, of looking back. Yes, there are those who seem to know no shame, while others feel so wronged themselves that they cannot conceive they might also have done wrong. But for most of us, regret is inescapable.
Even the best of us can be plagued by regret. I remember my good-natured, hard-working grandmother, inspiration for her sons and grandchildren, telling me she kept busy because she didn’t want to “think.” She could have meant any number of things by “think,” such as dwelling on mortality or the meaning of life. But I understood her to mean regret and even remorse. What reason could such an admirable person have had to regret a single thing?
For some actions, we may question whether atonement is realistic or acceptable. An obvious case would be a gratuitous murder. Otherwise, we should try to ensure that regret, in any of its forms, not undermine us.
For one thing, regret can lead us to make poor decisions out of a desire never to repeat what was a mistake in one context but that might not be in others. One acquaintance might resent being given certain advice, while another would welcome it. We might learn that a distraught friend we urged to seek professional help ended up in involuntary confinement and a very bad outcome. That’s likely to be the last time we offer such advice, even though most often it would be the right course of action.
As a writer, I’ve both given and been given devastating advice. I remember the occasion, at my college’s quad one early spring day in 1976, when I told a friend her poems were more like diary entries, a verdict that apparently discouraged her from writing ever after. Later that same semester, I got my comeuppance when a professor told me my own poems lacked “music.” I wrote a few poems after that, but I lost my enthusiasm for the medium. Still, his comment surely contributed to my move into prose, albeit informed by all the time and thought I’d put into reading and writing poems. In the end, he had no grounds for regret. Not that I think for one moment this particular professor felt any.
People who aren’t passionate about writing may find such examples trivial, but they’re real, and very personal, to those of us who care. Often when commenting on other people’s creative work, whatever the art form, we’re really working out or confirming our own ideas. When uttered without real regard for the artist, casual comments can be cruel and deserving of remorse.
Can we overcome regret for actions we think hurt others? Two steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program call for making amends. But, as rehabilitation organizations acknowledge, it isn’t always possible or wise. One distinction they make is between an act of restoration, such as giving back money borrowed long ago and never repaid, and indulging conscience, such as bursting out with an apology for an affair to a spouse who previously knew nothing about it. Such a confession might only wound. When contemplating making an apology, we might consider that sometimes no explanation will satisfy any one except possibly ourselves. Explanation is worth upheaval only if it brings emotional resolution.
The passage of time is a consideration. I may regret having treated someone badly twenty, thirty or forty years ago, but what if I called that person out of the blue to make amends? I’ve changed as the decades piled up, and so has that person. They might have forgotten. More likely, they’ve consigned the memory to some manageable, though perhaps unpleasant, place. Or, another possibility, the explanation has already occurred to them. It’s either satisfactory or still unacceptable, but either way, so long after the event, our best course is to come to terms on our own with the verdict we assume they rendered.
There’s another possibility. The person who is the object of our regret might well have come around during the intervening years. One afternoon I was walking up Amsterdam Avenue, in Manhattan, when a woman greeted me and told the woman friend with her, “He was my beau.” Exchanging recriminations, we’d broken up two decades earlier, and yet her spontaneous reaction on seeing me after all that time was unaffected delight. In that moment, whatever reasons I had to feel bad about my part in that relationship vanished. I, too, felt delight.
When experiencing regret for the harm we did ourselves or that we fear we did to others, we need to distinguish what was in our control from what wasn’t. Sadness may remain even for things outside our control, but it cannot be allowed to transform into guilt. On a recent rebroadcast of a show from 1970, Dick Cavett’s guest Billy Graham, of all people, asserted that the fundamental cause of problems for half of those locked away in institutions for the mentally ill was guilt. Even though I doubt such a claim could be verified, it struck me as plausible. Regret is constructive, guilt corrosive.
Memories become so much a part of us that we know ourselves by them. Often, memories are of the decisions we made. Indeed, the decisions we make every day help define us. By making a decision, we favor one course of action over one or more others: Robert Frost’s road not taken. Few decisions define us more starkly than those we regret. In turn, regret can show us who we were and how far, or how little, we’ve come.
As such, regret can help us become better human beings. Near the end of his article, Gordon Marino writes:
Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse.
Among the things I was ruing during the weeks after my recent surgery were words I wish I hadn’t said to my parents, along with others I wish I had said. Fortunately, I was with each parent during their last months, times that were deeply moving and indelible. Any lingering ill will was engulfed by a lifetime of love and quiet understanding. Those regrets haven’t gone away, but they live on as lessons in the larger realm of all that was right and good between us.
That’s the crucial point about regret: It must be kept in perspective. To offset regret, we must allow ourselves modest pride in the things we’ve done right. As the refrain goes in The Sound of Music, “I must have done something good.” Surely more than just one thing. We’re so much more than the acts and words that sometimes bedevil us.