In Defense of Regret
August 17, 2011 3 Comments
What do you regret? When I was about 6 years old, with a head so hot it could steam milk, I threw a claw hammer at my brother’s head. I missed…but I regret throwing it. Of course, there are plenty more serious things to regret. Some of those more serious things have touched my life, and yours.
Half of the T.V. dramas and action movies today have elements of regret. On tonight’s Without a Trace rerun, Martin and Samantha are dating. After Martin gets shot, Sam doesn’t visit for a whole day. Sitting by his bedside at the end of the episode she explains to Martin’s unconscious body how sorry she is for not visiting sooner. She was afraid to see him on the razor’s edge of life and death, so she stayed away. That’s a decision she regretted.
On the other hand, a Law and Order SVU rerun puts Detective Eliot Stabler in an impossible position. He could scoop up a kidnapped child his unit has been desperately searching for, or he could sprint to his partner Olivia, who has just been shot. He chooses the latter; the kidnapper makes off with the child; Olivia’s injury turns out to be a non-fatal flesh wound. In the pangs of regret, his co-workers remind him that he could not have known the extent of Olivia’s injury and he had an impossible decision to make.
Regret sweeps over almost all of us at some point in our lives, because we all lose something sooner or later. And those of us blessed with enough self-awareness to know we aren’t perfect attribute some of these losses to our own poor decision-making. However, even though regret is so ubiquitous, it is more frequently denied in our culture than it has ever been. “Live without regrets” is the Facebook wall life-philosophy of millions. We live in a world where, if we ever experience regret, people rally around us like Detective Stabler’s co-workers and tell us, “It’s not your fault. There’s nothing you could have done.”
Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they are not.
When they’re right, our well-meaning friends are affirming a key distinction between loss and regret. Loss is a fact of life. You may lose a great job opportunity. You may lose the respect of the people who follow you. You may lose the love of your spouse. You may lose your health. You may lose the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one. Loss is a tragic fact of life.
Regret, on the other hand, is a feeling brought about by an evaluation. It is an evaluation of the loss that essentially says, “It was my fault. I could have done otherwise.” Regret evaluates the loss and says it is not just loss…but failure.
For some of us, it is our tendency to internalize almost all loss as failure. When we experience loss, we can’t allow ourselves to conceive of our world as one in which tragic events are sometimes inexplicable (at least from our perspective). In some twisted way, it is easier for us to explain our pain through our own incompetence or moral failing than it is to face down a world in which we cannot always discern the causes of the evil that touches our lives.
For others of us, we simply confuse the difference between loss and regret. For example, we feel sadness because of a missed opportunity. We feel the pain of the loss. However, even if we know there was nothing we could have done differently with the information available to us, we feel inexplicably as though there was. We feel the pain of the loss and interpret it as the pain of regret.
For those of us who fit either of these descriptions, the friends that remind us of that we are not at fault are a God-send. This world is tragically broken, and sometimes we can’t avoid the brokenness.
Some of us, however, need another type of friend. Some of us have the more prevalent and, I think, more dangerous tendency to explain away the loss that actually is our fault. We say we had no options when in fact we did. We say it was someone else’s fault when it wasn’t. We say, “It seems like bad things are always happening to me,” and never notice the part we play in that pattern. A culture that says “Live with no regrets” speaks seductively to those of us that fit this description. We live without regrets alright…when we should be living with them. We need a true friend to confront us with the truth of our own failing.
Regret isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, when regret is in proportion to our own responsibility for the loss, regret is a good thing. It reminds us that we aren’t perfect. It alerts us to the truth of our own brokenness. If a man were to lose his marriage because of his own adulterous love affair and feel no regret, that would be a clear sign of serious emotional and spiritual deformity. On the other hand, a child abused by a parent should never be saddled with the burden of regret, as if they were culpable in the pain caused to them. Inappropriate regret unnecessarily burdens us, while inappropriate lack of regret deceives us into thinking that a malady that does exist actually doesn’t.
It is like masking treatable cancer with pain-pills. Appropriate regret, like pain, tells us that something is wrong with us and needs fixing.
The good news is that we don’t need fear feeling regret when we are responsible for our loss or someone else’s, as if our morally sullied past defines our identity and determines our future. God has taken care of our regrettable past through Jesus Christ. All the shame we feel was loaded onto Christ when he died on the cross, and he has already bore it for us. We don’t need to do the penance of life-time regret because the full penalty for all our poor decisions and downright failings has been paid for by Jesus Christ. But we will only ever know this good news of God’s acceptance of us if we first accept the bad news about ourselves. Regret can lead us to this painful truth.
So what do you regret that you shouldn’t? What don’t you regret that you should?