Life would be very empty, if we had nothing to regret. The most celebrated song of Edith Piaf, France’s most famous singer-songwriter, was “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”). But sadly, she had plenty to regret, dying in 1963 aged only 47, after many years of alcohol and drug abuse.
Does the criminal regret the crime? Not usually, unless he gets caught.
Did Japan regret Pearl Harbor? Does the U.S. regret Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
And what about Germany and the Holocaust?
Nations do all kinds of regrettable things. But sometimes (usually when it’s too late to do much good) they do apologize. It took America nearly 50 years to formally acknowledge and regret its internment of its own Japanese-American citizens during World War II. $20,000 was finally paid to each surviving victim of that hysteria.
The threat of regret is often used as a selling device, or in other forms of persuasion: Buy this, do that. You’ll be glad you did – or sorry, if you didn’t.
The Bible is full of regrets. God himself, we’re told in the Book of Genesis, at one point, considering human depravity, regretted that he had made man. (Hence the Great Flood, survived only by a non-depraved Noah, and those whom he took with him in the Ark.) In the Lord’s Prayer we pray to be forgiven for our sins. Practicing Jews annually devote one whole day – considered their holiest day of the year – to fasting and Atonement. (It is assumed that everybody has something to atone for.)
It also used to be assumed that those who offend society by breaking its laws needed, first of all, to repent. And when new prisons were built, and run under a very harsh regime, they were known as penitentiaries.
And yes, I do have my own regrets:
When I was still a teenager, living at home in England, my father and I didn’t have a very close relationship. But once (as I remember it), in the course of a private conversation, he revealed to me a personal weakness – the fact that there was something he’d always found repellant, even to think about. It was CHICKEN FAT. So how did I take this intimate revelation? I immediately started teasing him about it, repeating the expression, taunting, and making fun of him. I don’t remember any more details, not even how my generally mild-mannered father reacted – but I have always recalled that incident with a sense of profound regret, and shame. When someone confides in you concerning some delicate sensitivity, it gives you a sense of power over them – and this was a case in which a thoughtless teenager immediately seized on the opportunity to misuse that power.
There was another incident, at about that same period in my life, this time at school, when I allowed myself to be egged on to fight a schoolfellow over some minor grievance. The fight ended when, by twisting his arm, I forced him to give up. Somehow, I got the idea that I had seriously damaged his arm, and caused him to be hospitalized – and I spent most of the rest of my life recalling that episode, and regretting it. Not until just a few years ago, at a school reunion, did I next encounter that supposedly injured classmate. When I brought up the subject of that fight, he couldn’t remember it at all, but was sure his arm had suffered no great hurt.
Is there any point in feeling sorry for things we can no longer do anything about? H.L. Mencken, a celebrated journalist and social critic of the early twentieth century, was quoted as saying that “I never regret doing anything, even although I may be convinced that I was wrong. Once it is accomplished, I dismiss it from my mind.” But it’s not always that easy. Maybe personality types have something to do with it. Some of us are endowed or burdened with a faculty called conscience, which Hamlet famously soliloquized “doth make cowards of us all.” In his case, however, he was contemplating future regrets, in a world to come – for something he hadn’t even done yet.
This calls to mind the blessing and advance forgiveness which Pope Pius 11 is said to have bestowed upon the Italian Fascist troops who were about to invade Ethiopia in 1935.
Nevertheless, as some Brilliant thinker once wrote: “Having no regrets is such a good idea, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it sooner.”
Born London, 1933. Mother Canadian. Father a British civil servant. World War II childhood spent mostly in Toronto and Washington, D.C. Berkeley PhD in American History, 1964. Living in Santa Barbara since 1973. No children. Best-known for his illustrated epigrams, called “Pot-Shots,” now a series of 10,000. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ashleighbrilliant.com.