When it comes to regret, most people seem to think that Frank Sinatra got it right: it’s OK to have a few, as long as they are too few to mention. Regretting too much is a far greater risk than regretting too little.
However, there seems to be something of a double standard at work here, for when we look at people in public life, few things seem to raise the hackles more than lack of regret. Tony Blair’s recent memoirs were scoured for signs of remorse, and for many, their absence damned him. The biggest gaffe of Norman Lamont’s political career came when the then chancellor of the exchequer said “Je ne regrette rien”. Three weeks later, he was out of a job.
What explains this demand for regret in others and reluctance to regret ourselves? The answer could be that mistakes come in two varieties: prudential and moral. Prudential mistakes – from buying the wrong food blender to missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – may show poor judgment, but they do not cast doubt on our good character.
Failing to keep a promise or betraying a confidence, in contrast, are usually moral failings. They stand on the record as testimony of our failure to do the right thing. To regret these mistakes is to look back at our actions and admit to ourselves that it would have been better if we had not done them. This is no more than moral honesty requires.
Rather conveniently, however, we are apt to see the mistakes of others as moral and our own as purely prudential – or not mistakes at all. You fail to keep a promise and you’re a cad; I fail to keep one and it was because of a lapse of memory or an unavoidable conflict. We rightly see that others should acknowledge their moral shortcomings but fail to be as morally demanding of ourselves. So it is not just other people of whom we should be suspicious if they say they regret rien. If we think we have too few regrets to mention, then perhaps that’s just because there are some mistakes we won’t even admit to ourselves.
It’s easy for our minds to spin mesmerising stories about the terrible mistakes we’ve made and clearly superior alternatives that we’ve missed. It’s also easy for these to become a constant accompaniment, preventing us from living in the present for months and years. If only we’d done the other thing…
The soothing lines that friends come up with – “the past is the past” or “it was meant to be” – are not always very comforting. But their sentiments are right: wallowing in regret usually doesn’t help. No matter how much we obsess about it, the past will not change. And instead of filling our head with incessant “if onlys”, we could be enjoying what we have now.
But the alternative is not an insouciant je ne regrette rien. A resolutely unregretting attitude can easily slide into an unwillingness to take responsibility for our actions or learn from our mistakes. Regret has its uses.
For instance, regret may alert us to the need for self-examination. We might ask ourselves, what were the conditions leading to my choice? Should I – could I – really have known better? What, if anything, can I learn from this so that I make wiser choices in the future? Did I hurt someone? If so, how can I make amends? Only if we acknowledge the regret, can we ask these questions honestly.
Matters are complicated by the fact that it’s not always clear whether we did indeed choose badly. We can be mistaken when we believe that “the other option” was the right one. From our current point of view it may seem obvious that we did the wrong thing, but our future perspective may be quite different.
Nor do we ever know how things would have worked out if we’d taken another path. As Milan Kundera reminds us in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” That’s why we can never entirely banish regret; we can only do some soul-searching and get on with our life.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England. Stephen Grosz returns next week