A few weeks ago I was sitting poolside in Florida with a friendly retiree who was standing in the warm aqua water, beaming with friendliness. We started chatting, first about his hometown, Pittsburgh, and the many great athletes from there. Soon the conversation pivoted to Vietnam and his experiences as a draftee there. Embarrassed because I was spared from that jungle and moral crucible, I just listened. First it was a few madcap stories about his arrival in ’Nam, but then his thoughts swam along a darker current.
Moving his arms underwater, he recalled: “One time I had just gotten paid and I was gambling, playing poker with this 14-year-old Vietnamese kid. A great kid. He was studying English — wanted to make something of himself! Well, he won fair and square. He cleaned me out of my whole paycheck. I was drinking heavily back then. I picked up my M16, pointed it at him and demanded my money back. He gave me my money.”
All I could do was shake my head and tell him (though it wasn’t completely true) that every ugly deed that I committed had also been fueled by alcohol. As though I’d missed the point, he said: “I haven’t had a drink in decades. But you know I’d give anything to be able to see that kid now grown.” His voice swelled with emotion. “I would get on my knees and ask his forgiveness. I would say that I hope he has had a great life and that I am sorry.”
The otherwise jolly veteran-turned-accountant went on to suggest that he had done worse things “over there.” I hung my head and was thinking that maybe I should apologize to him for having been able and willing to get a deferment, avoiding the harrowing machine that sliced up his sense of innocence.
Not long after, I found myself wide awake one night, waiting for the gods of sleep to descend, when the incubus of a memory of another weak and selfish moment crawled out from under my bed. Sitting on my chest, it may as well have snickered, “O, teacher of ethics, how can you have any moral confidence in yourself after that?”
Better not to say. No less of an authority on sin and repentance than Dostoyevsky raised doubts about our ability to confess without boasting or making a power grab. Albert Camus, a student of Dostoyevsky, wrote “The Fall,” a book about guilt and judgment in an age when God and forgiveness have been put to bed. Camus’s protagonist, the “judge penitent” Jean-Baptiste Clamence, confesses that “the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you — even better, I provoke you into judging yourself.”
Perhaps I will commit one fewer sin by refraining from broadcasting my regrets.
In one of Kierkegaard’s most famous and cryptic sentences, he wrote, “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself.” Kierkegaard went on to explain that among other things, we are beings who combine aspects of both temporality and eternity. We are given the task of relating ourselves to our past and to our future. Days gone by are seldom an issue, but how to interpret major missteps that might prompt a person to lose faith in himself is a challenge that shapes who we are.
Some thinkers have portrayed regret as a humanizing emotion. The 20th-century moral philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out that, in instances where a person hurts another through no fault of her own (to use his example, a truck driver who runs over a child), we still expect her to feel remorseful. She will feel the weight of the event more intensely than any spectator. Other people, Williams writes, will try to comfort her, “but it is important that this is seen as something that should need to be done, and indeed some doubt would be felt about a driver who too blandly or readily moved to that position” of comfort.
Others hold the commonsense view that regret over a past event you can do nothing about is a waste of time when you can actually dosomething instead.
The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza reasoned that remorse and repentance are pernicious intoxicants that interfere with our understanding: It is out of rashness that we transgress and it is out of rashness that that we pound our heads about our transgressions. Our main aim, he believed, should be to avoid acting on impulse and emotion and to be guided by reason. Nietzsche agreed, calling remorse “adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”
In our therapeutic age, the likely counsel to the troubled former soldier would be “forgive yourself!” But self-forgiveness is a misconception. The only people who can forgive us are those we have sinned against, those we have harmed. Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamozov argued that not even God has the right to forgive someone who has tortured and murdered children. After all, God wasn’t the one who was tortured.
I have no authority to forgive someone for mugging you, and I can’t forgive myself for cheating someone else. This is not to endorse endlessly torturing ourselves or pathological guilt. When the super-ego becomes a mad dog, we lose faith in ourselves and in our ability to mend our ways. We can learn to let things go, but before we let them go, we have to let regret get hold of us. Perhaps the old biblical formula is best — repent, ask for forgiveness with a sincere resolve to change your ways.
Regrets come in different forms. There are the faux pas and botched career moves. Just before he tumbled over the falls and out of existence, I asked an uncle if he had any regrets. His brow furrowed, he drew a deep breath as though what he was about to say was hard-going. Then he confessed that the one thing he deeply regretted was selling a certain piece of property at a price that was much too low.
Moral regrets are usually packed up in deep self-storage and we often make a point of remembering to forget them, even while we are awash in pseudo-regrets. I often regale my male friends with the tale of the time during college football pre-season when I started a fight with a coach on the practice field. This incident helped bring an end to my less than glorious gridiron career, and in that sense I regret it, but when I tell the story it is always with a chuckle, as if to say, “Wasn’t I a pirate in my day?”
As Freud and Kierkegaard taught, we always have to consider the affect, the mood with which an idea is expressed, in order to begin to comprehend the meaning that the idea has for us. The memory that the Vietnam vet bounced out of the pool was not of that backward boastful sort, it was a beach ball of sorrow. I suspect that he was a better person for having mulled over and hung his head for his behavior than he would have been had he resolved — what’s done is done and never thought about it again.
Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse. Henry David Thoreau advised: “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.” To live afresh is to be morally born again.
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