The season of Regret

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Autumn is a time of regret. Even as the humidity goes away, the temperature drops and we gladly put on those sweaters for chilly mornings, even as the trees start to blaze with color, the apples taste crisp and sweet, and pumpkins greet us with their toothy grins, we know, as Carl Sandburg reminded us in the opening words, that no beautiful thing lasts. Winter is coming, with all of its challenges. So we hold onto the sweet beauty of Autumn, even as we regret it’s passing.
Autumn is the time of the Jewish High Holy Days, which also make plenty of room for regret. Last week Rosh Hashanah, which means head of the year, began. Rabbi Arthur Waskow explains that “Rosh Hashanah is the new year for renewal. It is the time to focus our attention on the ultimate spiritual truth. . . . The ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe. The traditional metaphor was that during this time God might rewrite a name, taking it from the ledger of death into the Book of Life, depending on how we act–whether we return to the path of decency, or not. So the . . . days that lie between the two holy days are turned into a spiritual bridge from one to the other by several special practices in ceremony as well as in daily life. . . . For a (large) section of the Jewish community, the Rosh Hashanah period provides a strong stimulus for . . . re-examination and correction of one’s own behavior. . . .” Thus the responsive reading we read, On Turning by Jack Riemer.
For we Unitarian Universalists these days, this season, might also remind us of the brief nature of human life, of human ageing. These days might remind us to cultivate humility and responsibility. To remember that we are not perfect. We make mistakes, we do not always act with consideration, or with good intentions. We do not always think beyond ourselves. And for that we need each other’s forgiveness and goodwill. Human relations always run the risk of going awry. What we do, how we behave, is just as important as how we feel and what we think. We may or may not love each other, we may or may not like each other. Regardless–it matters how we treat each other. It matters. These days, this season, remind us of our own vulnerability, our own mortality. If we live with our doors open, we risk being hurt, we risk being criticized, we risk being treated unjustly, we risk treating others in those ways. But what is the alternative? Have you ever heard the phrase “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” It comes from the novel Love Story by Erich Segal. I wonder about “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” Love is always having to say you’re sorry.
Regret. Who among us has not felt its dull heaviness, or its sharp cuts? Like corn kernels over a flame, when one regret pops open, a whole host follows. Regret is a feeling of disappointment, distress or sorrow over the wish that something we did or did not do, something we said or did not say in the past could have been different. It often comes with a kind of helplessness because we cannot change the past and do not know what to do with the dissatisfaction we feel about it in the present. Regret’s favorite words are “What if?” and “If only.” Regret is not an easy feeling to experience. Which may be part of the appeal in the lyrics of the song we just heard — No, I regret nothing. Made famous by the French singer Edith Piaf it essentially says, I made my choices, I did what I did and the chips fell where they may. So what? I have no regrets. It’s Frank Sinatra defiantly singing I Did It My Way.
Claiming that we regret nothing, thumbing our nose at the world so to speak, appeals because I think most of us do have regrets. I cannot imagine anyone living for very long and not finding him/herself wishing that something in the past had turned out differently. In that sense regret seems almost inevitable. It can paralyze us and trap us. Regret can also make us stronger and point the way toward a different future. “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets,” said playwright Arthur Miller.
Our regrets emerge from the choices we make, conscious and unconscious. Conscious choices require us to think in terms of future what-if’s in order to try to discern what we really want, what is really possible, and what will serve us the best. Yet all choice involves a loss, a risk, the unknown. What school will I attend? What work will I choose? When will I retire? Where will I live? What will I have for dinner? What to wear today? Sometimes we play with alternative choices and re-write history as a way to make sense of our lives. What if I had not met you? What if I had moved to the west coast? What if I had stayed in that teaching job? The sting of regret might signal a less than optimal choice, or a restlessness in a current situation, or some unfinished business.
It happens that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with the results. When faced with too many choices, some of us opt out of making any choice at all, which itself becomes a source of regret. When I stand in front of a shelf full of vitamins and various supplements and see all the different stuff I could buy, I feel overwhelmed and sometimes leave the store with nothing. From Neal Roese, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, “Regret is not something that’s just a curse or a nuisance to our daily living. It’s an indicator of our brains trying their best to guide us through complicated social environments.” Henry David Thoreau said it more poetically: “Make the most of your regrets. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”
Exactly how does one make the most of one’s regrets? That is a message in these Days of Awe, of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. We are human. We sometimes do what we should not do and we regret it. We sometimes make choices that have intended or unintended harmful consequences and we regret them. We can make the most of our regrets by letting them lead us to a turn, or a re-turn toward each other. For our regrettable actions and choices we can atone; we can make amends; we can seek reconciliation; we can intend to do differently in the future. Atonement means asking forgiveness, it means offering forgiveness to ourselves. I remember when I worked for the Social Security Administration and I had a boss who was an observant Jewish man. He was on the anxious side and frankly, drove us crazy with his frantic demands. One year during Rosh Hashanah he called a meeting and expressed his regret for his manner of speaking to us. He asked our forgiveness. Wow. How often does a boss make atonement like that? How many of us ever do that on a regular level in our lives? As a society, as communities, as nations, as religious groups, we almost never do it. I would suggest that we would be better off if we did. It made a difference when my boss atoned. For a brief time he curbed his impatience, but after a while it came back though never as frantic. The greater difference his atonement made was in us, in the broader understanding with which we received him. Our understanding made us more compassionate and accepting. It also freed us to speak up to him.
Why is it so hard for so many of us to move toward atonement? Why does it seem easier to remain mired in regret, as in quicksand? What assumptions are we operating under? What are we afraid of? Plenty.
For a myriad of reasons it is difficult if not next to impossible for many of us to ask forgiveness. To say I’m sorry. It is uncomfortable to conceive of ourselves as having done something wrong. After all, we have a self-image to maintain. We are good people and good people don’t behave badly. Good people do not treat each other unkindly. We have a strong sense of morality, a high sense of justice, a well articulated set of ethics. Good people don’t behave immorally, unjustly, unethically.
Further, many of us want to be liked, to be loved. We want and seek each other’s approval. Our pride is involved, our ego. Our guilt, our shame. We need to be right. We want to be loved. We remember how it felt as children to be punished for violations of the “good boy, good girl” code. Woe to us when we didn’t share, when we lied or cheated. When I was five years old and in kindergarten, I played after school with Angelo, the boy up the street. One day we had pieces of cardboard and for reasons I can’t recall, I scratched his face in order to grab the last piece. As he cried, and bled, all the way home, my grandmother banished me to my room. While I paced up and down, she talked about feeling mortified and embarrassed by me. I was so upset to have embarrassed her, to have ruined my reputation as a good little girl. I’m still upset about it. What came over me? It must have been Angelo’s fault.
Many of us cover our misdeeds with this kind of moral laziness. We blame them on somebody else. We do it politically and societally. We do it personally. You asked for it. You didn’t say the right thing, do the right thing, work hard enough. You had it coming to you. I didn’t say that, you misunderstood me. It’s your fault, you drove me to it. Or we explain that we didn’t mean it, as if having good intentions totally excuses us from the harm we might have done. As if having good intentions alone should buy us instant forgiveness or understanding. Or we dissociate ourselves from our own misdeeds. What got into me? Something came over me; I wasn’t myself. Who were you then? Did an alien invade your body? We see ourselves as good people, so if we do something harmful, it is not us who could possibly have done it. We cannot or will not believe that good people are complex people; that it is possible to be good and still act in ways that we will later regret. We cannot seem to live with that kind of ambivalent self-image. It is hard to ask forgiveness.
“Make the most of your regrets. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” But regrets come in many layers, some helpful, some harmful. How can we distinguish between them and use our regret as a guide for when we need to make amends or repair relationship or take responsibility or make changes? How can we learn to tame, even let go of, the regret that only bombards us with the tyranny of our internal worlds of “should?” Or the regret that pulls us into the black holes of our insecurities? How can we recognize regret for what it represents? How can we make use of what it has to offer?
We might want to understand the nature of our regret. In what guises does it present itself to us? There are many possibilities. As we uncover the reasons why we feel regret, why we wish something in the past had been different, we learn a lot about what we really think, what we expect, even what we fear. The sources of our regret differentiate helpful from unhelpful regret.
Regret can arise as an adjunct to our need for a sense of power and control over ourselves and our lives. This isn’t a bad thing. We need to believe we can do differently in order to do differently. The person who looks back and says, with regret, “Why did I say such a stupid thing? How could I have been such an idiot?” might be a person trying to figure out how to avoid negative consequences next time. We can berate ourselves for past actions as a way to teach ourselves how not to repeat them. To make the most of them and learn from our mistakes.
Regret can accompany our moral consciousness. When we violate our own values, or those of people whose regard matters to us, our regret can help us face up to ourselves and take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, intended or unintended. Our conscience speaks to us in the language of regret. That too is beneficial regret.
There is also non-beneficial regret. Many of us have a place within that I call the land of “should.” It contains all of our rules and expectations, our parents’ instructions, our teachers’ injunctions. All of the ways life “should” be. All of the ways we “should” be. These are neither ethical “shoulds” nor rules for safety or health. Rather they are customs, preferences, the way things are. This place within us can lie dormant for long periods of time, but we become very aware of its existence each time we violate a “should.” Then we enter the land of “should,” and regret often follows. Maybe we feel embarrassed; maybe we feel defensive; maybe we feel rebellious and defiant. All because we internalized what someone told us was the way we, or they, or things, should be. Usually we stop with the sense of regret, all the while maybe feeling like a jerk. But if we can peek underneath our emotions, we might find that our regrets tell us about our internal, unexamined rules and they give us an opportunity to question them. They give us the freedom to ask ourselves whether we find it helpful and healthful to live with so many “shoulds.” Do we need them all? When our regrets speak in “shoulds” they might very well be the non-helpful kind.
Many of us carry around a deep dread that something in us is not quite right, not okay and that one day everybody’s going to find out. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking. We feel a little uneasy and less than confident about our talents, our intelligence, our families, what we have achieved in life. About who we are fundamentally. We fear that if people really knew us, they would see us for frauds. In our desire and need to be thought well of, to call forth our best selves, to please others, to get ahead, whatever that means to us, we become our own worst enemies. It’s a coping mechanism that doesn’t really help us cope. We try to make ourselves better by scrutinizing everything we say and do. Some of us criticize ourselves far more than we praise ourselves and we have a loud, critical judge within who lets us know everything we do “wrong.” We develop a habit of second guessing ourselves, in the name of improving ourselves. In the name of protecting ourselves from the anticipated scorn of others. We lie awake going over events of the day. “Why did I say I enjoyed that film? Why did I say I watch television? Now everybody thinks I’m an idiot.” “Why did I eat so much? Why didn’t I leave more of a tip?” It goes on and on relentlessly.
Unhelpful regret emerges out of such painful, ongoing critical self-judgment. We want the past to be different because we want ourselves to be different and we blame ourselves when we’re not. We lose the distinction between reflective self-improvement and beating ourselves up. Maybe we feel angry at the way things are, at the way we are. Maybe we feel anxious. Maybe we feel confused. The overly harsh self-critical habit spills over into our relationships with others. All the regrets it brings in its wake take on a life of their own. Regret becomes a way of avoiding ourselves. We didn’t do it “right,” we won’t ever get it “right,” why bother. We become stuck in a black hole of regret. That’s a very painful place.
Regrets can harm us and keep us stuck. Regrets can help us find ways to atone, make intentions to improve and move on. If we can tease out the source of our regret, we can know what to do with the regret we feel. We can glean when to let it go as an unexamined and no longer useful expectation of how things should be. We can understand it as a mirror reflecting back to us our fear and shame and use it perhaps to deal with those issues. We can learn from it. We can build our courage and use it as an opportunity to strengthen ethically.
The Jewish High Holy Days carry a universal message: make atonement as appropriate in the name of peace. Our lives are filled with choices to make. Looking at the past and asking ourselves “what if” may indeed help us to make sense of paths we took. But wanting the past to be different and beating ourselves up over and over again is like a dog chasing its tail. We can’t change the past. We can, however, accept that it happened and use our regret to change ourselves in the present. Autumn is a season that invites us to consider our regrets. May we consider them well, letting the unhelpful ones go by and making the most of the ones that would make us better people. May it be so.

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