The nature of regret is intriguing. Sometimes regret seems like a lesson that needed to be taught. Sometimes it feels as if regret can be comforting. Sometimes regret is elusive and you are not sure if you experience it or not, but you feel that you must. What does regret mean and is it uniquely human?
A phrase common between lovers is “I regret that I did not treat you better.” Although, it seems self-effacing, perhaps it is self-effacing along with judgment. “You were not someone that I was able to treat better and I regret that.” Regret with an escape clause is something different from regret.
Regret is food for discontent, but what happens when you feed regret, what happens when you don’t? It seems to grow of its own volition. Is regret a cancer or one of the many paths to salvation? When something is both healthy and unhealthy…
Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh. Henry David Thoreau
Is that true? Is regret something to be cherished? If that is true, regret should have a different name.
Regret does not seem to be an applicable word to apply to events in which a person had no part. What does one regret in that instance? Can one regret being there to witness? I can feel badly about seeing a child burning with Napalm or a man lynched to a tree, but what can I regret about those things? Do I regret that I have seen them? Or do I feel some responsibility for them and regret that? Neither truly seems real to me.
It is such a subtle emotion only achieved upon reflection. Sometimes the reflection is not true. A boy can regret having had an erection when it was socially inappropriate. But isn’t there a secret joy that lives inside of that regret? In this instance, the regret is etched in embarrassment at the unveiling of secret desires. There is some satisfaction that one’s body or actions has made a true statement, no matter how it was received.
Is regret different from profound sadness? I think that it is because regret seems to offer hope. Ask the question of another person “what do you regret most?” Do you think that most people know and. if they knew, would readily share it?
Profound sadness lacks hope. It settles upon a person like a wet blanket. One morning I got a phone call. It was just after the holidays in 2005. I had wanted my mom to come to our home for a movie marathon sleepover. It was a family tradition dating back to when she owned a video store and the movies were free. My stepfather said that he did not think that she could come to my home and that I should get there right away. She had gotten sick during the night.
Her hands were warm and dry when I held them. She was sitting hunched forward on her couch in her living room and she gazed into my eyes with love and fear and trust.
“I think that you need to go to the hospital, mom.”
She held my hands. “Why Bruzzer?”
It was a personal name that spoke to the nature of our relationship. I was not only her son, I was her brother. And she made it into a word that she would have called “baby talk.”
“Because we need to save your life. I’ll go with you. I’ll stay.”
“I can’t get dressed.”
That was when I made the decision to call the ambulance. Everyone there looked at me to be the one to do it. But it was my decision.
They arrived so quickly and gave her a full throttle of oxygen which caused a piece of plaque to break off and cause a stroke, there in the ambulance as I sat next to her. It was her last conscious moment.
The next nine days were just a vigil of death. It ended when I made the decision to have them pull the plug on her respirator. That was an act of profound sadness, but the decision to call the ambulance is one which has come to represent regret. There is the difference. Regret is when one hopes and feels that a more positive outcome was possible. Profound sadness occurs when you know that there is not.
Regret can be ephemeral but profound sadness cannot. What is the difference between sadness and profound sadness? I think that sadness can dissipate if it is not profound. I think that it may change its form if it is, but that it does not dissipate.
Why does regret deepen with age? Is it just that we have more to regret? I am told that if you work with the dying that you hear many regrets. They seem to have to do with more personal failings. People wonder why they could not love more freely. They ponder their priorities. They wish that they had worked less and spent more time with family. I think that some regrets tend to be generational. They have the “if only” gene. I think that this is false regret. I think that they lived as they wished but feel frightened by their choices. Suppose that all this time, they were wrong?
My Aunt Dottie loved her furniture and her diamonds and her clothes, but at the end of her life, when she asked me to come and live with her, she knew that I was sloppy and it did not matter. She wanted my close love and could no longer gain comfort with her things. I treasure the things of hers that I still have more than 40 years after her death. The comfort that they did not bring to her, they bring to me because of what she infused into them with those same choices that she felt regretful about at the end of her life.
Uncertainty is an element of regret.
I wonder why I am writing about regret. I want to believe that I wish to find that sliver of hope and grow from it. I want to believe that by coming to and understanding of sadness and profound sadness that I can come to peace and integrate them inside of me. I want this because I know that if they live outside of me, I will think of them as monsters or alien growths that threaten my existence.
Having ever regretted experiencing something that was so good that what came after seemed to pale in comparison? Did it detract, because of what came after, how good that experience was? Did you finally allow the pain of regret cause you to challenge the validity of how good you thought it was? Did you tell yourself that was just how you felt at the time? Did regret cause that goodness to lose staying power?
On the other hand, I have learned that regret can be a spur. I regretted having to leave Drew University as an undergrad. I was underfunded, unprepared and willing to work myself into an unhealthy exhaustion to make up for my shortcomings. I was on the most beautiful college campus that I had ever imagined. I took my English classes in a grey castle. I walked lawns that were filled with ice sculptures made by students of the art department. Then I got sick and had to go home. I forfeited all the work that I had done. I could not afford to go back.
That regret ate at me and I made sure that it never happened again. When I got my doctorate from Drew University, I realized that sometimes regret can be a great motivator. I had been measured and in my eyes I had come up short and I did not wish to come up short again. Regret can help to instill motivation.
Perhaps regret can also be dismissed, but should it be? I have heard people say that they do not wish to let their regrets weigh them down. Is this another way of saying that they wish to act with impunity?
Is regret a form of guilt? Are they synonyms? I think one can feel guilty without regret. Can a person feel regret without guilt? I think it is more than semantics. In my youth, we coined the phrase “guilt trip” and we accused anyone who was trying to make us feel badly about our actions of “laying a guilt trip on us.” Some of us still do that. It is an effort to make the accuser at once seem like a combination of a Jewish mother and a Catholic nun. Does that mean that regret is a feminine characteristic?
I am not saying it’s attributable only to women, but in its stereotypes, does it point out that it is a portion of the feminine side of a human being? I think that it might be but I’m not sure yet what to do with that information. I’m no longer sure that the labels of masculine side and feminine side apply. I wish to be so integrated that they are conjoined and create an amalgam.
I sometimes regret that I have not realized this earlier.