Is regret regretful?

So many memes on regret and forgiveness these days. I’m not big on blind or universal forgiveness nor do I argue that regret is regrettable ( 😉 )! A twitter contact invited my reaction to this quote this morning: “Regret is a coping mechanism that, coupled with the luxury of hindsight, fixates on the past overrunning your present. Not very productive”. (Proper practice requires acknowledging one’s sources, but as is typical of social media, this is unknown to me. If you happen to be a Twitter contact, my apologies for this, and please do identify yourself and let me know if these words have been taken out of context or belong to a longer more carefully crafted discussion that you’d want acknowledged.) The first speaks to psychology and the latter to a daunting Christian ethic. Nothing wrong with coping, or coping “mechanisms”, so long as they don’t run the show and become a crutch to evade suffering and owning the events of one’s life. These come in so many forms that they are literally countless. But some of these include distractions in the form of alcohol and drugs, food, thrills, other people, or the more elusive case of maintaining a paradigm with shifting faces (this is the best and most successful kind! 😛 ), work, projects, fitness, and more. I know I’m guilty of more than a few of these. But not all of these are necessarily unhealthy choices, since many of these are at least healthy ways to maintain balance, at least initially, and only ever become unhealthy life-long choices when the real underlying sense of loss and despair is left unaddressed. Regret can be a most healthy and mature route as I have argued in my original blog post (see below). As for fixating on the past such that it overrides the present, this too is not a necessary parable. Indeed, lamenting over the past and feeding a sense of hurt, loss, and/or betrayal is not the same thing as addressing the events of one’s life in a level-headed manner in order to properly (re)orient oneself which can be a tremendously insightful process where one often (insert psychotherapy here) identifies habituated patterns born out of pathologies that are at the core of wrong turns taken along the way, and repeated scenarios that mysteriously (hahahahaha) end the same way. Again, this is liberating and leaves one not harnessed to your past, or any pasts, but able to devise new habitual paradigms which are the game changers of life.

What of forgiveness? Clearly moral, psychological and theological issues arise. I won’t attempt to contribute to this complex debate (see Forgiveness and Christian Ethics (for starters),, but I will say this. Forgiveness cannot simply be a matter of the wronged individual rising above the often malicious or heartless pain and suffering caused by others (either directly to one self or indirectly through others). Not all wrongdoings are created equal, and forgiveness does and (in my books) should reflect that. How and why does one forgive the murderous, tortuous deeds of a Nazi soldier who shows no regret, remorse or even the slightly acknowledgment of wrongdoing, but instead reveals an indignant confidence in his “work”, and the commitment to see the events of the world unfold whereupon he’d gladly take up arms once again? Two issues arise here: the seriousness of the wrongdoing, and the regret of the wrongdoer. The first concerns a complicated relationship between the objective and subjective with regards to evaluating wrongdoings as wrongdoings and determining the degree either according to certain features of the act or intentions of the act itself, and evaluating suffering as suffering and determining the causal relationship between the act and the subjective features of suffering, as well as, the authenticity of said suffering (one might argue that suffering is self-imposed in cases of delusional individuals, unstable, and/or hyper-sensitive individuals). The second concerns the regret of the wrongdoer! Again, I address the issue of remorse in my original blog, but let me say this: acknowledging the pain and suffering caused to others from a psychological perspective can be liberating for the “victim” since it may offer closure (a proper understanding of events can be liberating as when one wants to talk to one’s assailant in order to understand why!!), de-victimize the experience, and/or may entirely alter one’s experience of loss and/or betrayal, as when a feeling of rejection, or callousness turns out to be an expression of the assailant’s defence mechanism (this is a common occurrence when one or both parties of an ended relationship speak ill of each other, begin new affairs within seconds of their demise (the Greeks: we’re nothing if not dramatic! 😉 ), and so on; i.e. this is their expression of loss and a mechanism (yes, theirs! 😉 ) to deal with that loss, and hence a sign not of rejection but of the regret (regret? did I say regret? 😉 ) of the demise, and an expression of continued love and attachment) or may be an expression of one’s moral barometer (this can be the case when someone does something that knowingly will cause another a degree of suffering but which is perceived to be for their own good). There is nothing quite as powerful to the ringing ears of the disparaged, than the words “I’m sorry”! But what happens when “Sorry!” never comes? Psychologists sometimes ban with theologians on this one, and argue that forgiveness is self-liberating. That is, it is through the act of forgiveness that the wronged can move on. But why is this? I submit that it rests in a deeply embedded assumption that emotional restitution craves and hence must have a sense of justice restored. The wronged seek peace in understanding the whys and hows of other people’s choices; sometimes these may be part of a larger more spiritual paradigm, and sometimes it is more of a secular kind of anthropology. In either case, it is understanding within a conceptual paradigm of meaning that explains away the wrongdoing, and thereby appeases one’s feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness. I don’t doubt that. Indeed, it receives a swaggering high five from me – after all what kind of philosopher would I be were I not invested in clarity! ( 🙂 ) What I would argue, however, is that this confuses apples with oranges. Clarity, understanding, and sound reasoning can be used to address cognitive dissonance and it can go a long way in realigning one’s orientation in the world, which is part of the healing process. Still, forgiveness is not at issue or exclusively an issue for the wronged subject, as the example with the ardent Nazi soldier aimed to suggest. A corollary issue is whether an assailant deserves forgiveness. Does this not require that the aggressor actually do something, like perhaps show some regret, or remorse?!!! And backward we go again to consider regret! What happens when they just don’t deserve forgiveness? There’s the hard task of admitting that “shit happens…and sometimes it’s an underserved, inexplicable mass of shit” (as in the case of Nazi survivors, cases like Jyoti Singh (I’ve spoken about this elsewhere: See India’s Daughter) and more!). There are evil people (some may disagree) and events (some may object to the word “evil”) in this world. So I submit, that in part, one must admit that so much that affects and infects us, is beyond our own control (some of which is in the control of those sometimes regretful others) and often there is no rhyme nor reason for it. Indeed, one might even embrace the view that there is, in fact, no universal justice in the world (as I would), but only those human-made paradigms in which and for which justice becomes meaningful. Sometimes, healing and clarity requires being able to live with that!

From a moral perspective, it says that I assume and acknowledge my responsibility in the (perhaps unnecessary) pain and suffering I caused you, and can now with clarity of mind, and liberation of heart, genuinely say I was wrong; that you were wronged, and I regret that! From a metaphysical perceptive it says, that if I could go back and alter the causal events of the world, I would have chosen otherwise, and would, given the opportunity, not have put actions or events into play that caused your suffering.

The Joy of Regret (the original blog post)

More often than not people profess that one should not regret anything one has done because, after all, it got me to where I am now. And strangely even when ‘where one is now’ ain’t so great, bizarrely one draws inspiration from the idea that I would not be who I am were it not for everything that preceded, and I guess not profoundly embracing this notion is blasphemous dribble suggestive of self-annihilation. I don’t agree. I’m so totally with Kathryn.

Do you honestly believe that Biban Janković does not regret slamming his head against the goal post ( that caused his paralysis and premature death? What if the late Jyoti Singh (see India’s Daughter) could turn back the clock and not enter the bus from hell? Would she not have chosen to? You can be sure that Stanley Tookie Williams (( regrets his delinquent ways! Indeed, it was his regret that moved him to change his ways, and though from a prison cell, inspire young hooligans on the fast track to a life of crime, to learn from his mistakes! Regret implies agency  – Kathryn is right about this, no? We cannot regret what we cannot change. I can’t regret being born into a world bent on (still lingering) patriarchal sentiments, any more than I can regret the vicious tragedy that befell the lovely Jyoti Singh. These events were not within my power to effect. But this is not the same as decisions made under my watch, as I surveyed my life. The premise is fallaciously employed retroactively to suggest that because I cannot change the past, and therefore have no control over altering events already transpired, that regret is a futile occupation. Of course, I did have agential authority over events that, despite the initial suggestion, one quite naturally evokes a sense of regret for (“Damn I wish I hadn’t eaten that 2nd piece of cake!” or “Shit, I wish I hadn’t betrayed my wife and pissed my family away!”) which is obviously not the case with regards to those events over which I never had (or could have had) such authority over. Still, many might argue that what is done is done. The past cannot be undone. I cannot claim (or be assigned) agential authority over that. True enough. Except for one thing. Regret is an emotionally charged response to a situation which is perceived to have been under one’s control to effect. This is why often cries of self-admonition – “I wish I hadn’t!!!!”- can be heard over and over again. Sometimes regrets linger and are replayed ad nauseam as one wrestles with the emotional overtures of events one could (often easily) have altered….but didn’t. Regret does not reflect one’s impotency to change the past, but one’s weakness, ignorance, idiocy, delusion, to have acted in a way that one now understands to have been under  (or could have been) one’s control to do otherwise. That’s why I don’t regret what is perceived to have been beyond my control to act otherwise (eg. under coercive threat).

And we do actually believe this. Regret is the moral backdrop (perhaps) of all organized human life where moral culpability plays a fundamental role in the assignment of blame and incurring punishments and penalties. We don’t send sociopaths to jail because they are deemed ill-fit and devoid of the moral sentiments from which a sense of moral culpability is drawn. The point is twofold: (i) Iff one is sound in mind, is one assigned moral culpability (eg. mentally challenged, temporary insanity, psychoses, etc.) ; and (ii) only in cases such as these does one recognize in oneself acts of wrong doing and the ensuing predictable (and I dare say, expected) feeling of regret! The corollary of this view is that such individuals (especially those suffering from psychoses) are beyond rehabilitation because they are beyond redemption. Herein lies the crux of the matter: regret charges one with both the responsibility and motivation to alter one’s ways. It says, in effect, I could have acted differently, if only I had known x, believed y, was willing to see or accept z, and/or had the courage to act accordingly. With foresight in my grasp, I can now tend to these shortcomings in self, and begin my journey towards my own transvaluation of values (well not quite as Nietzsche might have hoped, but perhaps Derek Vineyard’s existential plight in American History X offers some insight – and the negotiation of self (so very unlike that more convenient idea with which this blog began where one embraces who one is just because this is how I happened to turn out!!! 🙂 ) more authentically and viscerally realized. It is as Kathryn says, regret only means that I acknowledge in myself the power to be better, the emotional stability to accept my fragility, and the desire to change and make past wrongs right.

Regret at will, I say! It is the healthy choice. And make no mistake, this too is a choice! 🙂


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