I checked out a book from the library that I’ve not really been able to get into reading. But it was not a complete waste (checking out a book seldom is, even if I don’t actually read it), because I found this quote at the beginning, which reminded me of some thoughts I was trying to develop several months ago:
History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret. So that hard on the heels of the Why comes the sly and wistful word If. If it hand not been for… If only… Were it not… Those useless Ifs of history. And, constantly impeding, deflecting, distracting the backward searchings of the question why, exists this other form of retrogression: If only we could have it back. A New Beginning. If only we could return…
To get the technicalities out of the way, the quote is from Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan, and she is quoting Graham Swift in Waterland.
I don’t think I’ve completely sorted out all the complexities of that quote, which is no surprise, because I often enjoy reading things that I only understand 15 to 25 percent of. It stretches my brain, it makes me think, it makes me think outside my own natural box and ponder things from different perspectives, and sometimes it makes me think of things that weren’t exactly the point of the quote.
In this case, the quote served as a trigger to my previous thoughts on regret. My life has taken some pretty rough turns and gone down paths that I’d rather not have gone down. But I end up a bit baffled sometimes because it seems like people expect me to have more regrets than I do.
I find that often there is a tendency for people to want to analyze every single decision and find “the thing” that they (or I) did wrong which could have prevented the outcome that happened. There is a sense in which the regret that comes from that seems to be therapeutic. If I can find something to regret, I can place guilt (or perhaps shame) someplace/anyplace and make some sense of what happened, and maybe over assure myself that I won’t let THAT happen again. I don’t know for sure. I think those are a couple of the functions and benefits of regret. Perhaps you can think of some more?
As a disclaimer before I get where I’m going with this, when I talk about not really giving much space to regret, I’m not against looking at cause and effect and making connections. We learn that way. We run by the pool, slip on the slippery surface and back up in our minds and come to the conclusion that we could have likely avoided that skinned knee by being a bit more careful on a slippery surface. A lot of wisdom is gained by looking carefully and reflecting on the past, and then learning from it.
But, if we make regret carry more certainty that it should, I believe we make a grave error.
I was thinking that regret is often to the past what fantasy is to the future. A big picture imagining that becomes realer than real.
The problem about regret is not what it does know–I did this and this happened–but the confident assumptions and assertions of what it doesn’t know–if I’d have done this other thing, things would have been much better.
But regret, unlike what really did happen, (and like fantasy) is created in an ideal, imagined world. The alternative possibility(ies) that make up regret, were they lived out, though, would have been lived out, not in that ideal imagined world, but in just as complicated, complex and often messed up world as the original action/choice.
I’m not against being sad about choices made and actions done which caused pain. I’m just against letting the fantasy reality of regrets fuel the sadness and grief into some sort of absolutely certain, “Things would have been better if I had done this other thing.”
That kind of thinking feels very similar to the fantastic thinking of fantasies: Things would be absolutely wonderful and certainly infinitely better than they are now, if only THIS were true.
It’s just not realistic. And neither, I’m thinking are regrets the way I mostly hear them used. Give me grief and sadness and when I really see that I have certainly blown something, repentance. Regret, though, does not feel productive, in that it purports to know with certainty what can’t be known and longs for the changing of a past in ways that can’t be changed. Regret doesn’t even seem to honestly accept or reflect reality.
“The useless Ifs of history…” I’m all for learning from my past. I’m not for trying to reinvent it. I’d rather allow the past to be what it is. Remembering the past accurately is important to me. It is what it is. It’s what has made me who and what I am today–all of me the good, the bad, the traumatized, the confident, the strengths, the weaknesses. To try to imagine, with the help of regret, how things could have been different, immediately begins a hugely impossible task. There are too many variables too complexly intertwined with each other to say with certainty “If I had done this differently” or “If so and so had done that differently” X would have happened. I am not even convinced we can say with certainty, “If…. then Y would NOT have happened.” All we can say with certainty is X happened. And grieve it or rejoice in it, or, usually, some difficult combination.
What I know is, This is what happened. This is Who I am. There is a lot of happiness and there is a lot of grief in the past. It most certainly continues to affect me and shape who I am, but I cannot live in the past, trying to make it more palatable or rework it like a video game where I get a second chance to make it work out differently. I can live in the present, remembering and making space for the past–the good, the bad, the ugly. But I cannot live in the past, and usually I think that is what Regret does.
What are your thoughts? As definitive as I sound, I’m still thinking through these things and open to the possibility that I’m making more of the semantics of “regret” than is really there.