Edith Piaf, the diminutive French singer who could belt out a tune like nobody’s business, won acclaim for her song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” or “No, I Regret Nothing.”
Most of us in adulthood probably don’t share that sentiment. Regret can sit on our shoulders like a paratrooper’s pack, weighing us down by the thoughts of prospects diminished and opportunities demolished. We reach the age of 35 and wonder if our single-minded pursuit of a career has ended the possibility of marriage. Or we look around and see many of our friends successful in their careers while we seem stuck in a job that brings neither wealth nor satisfaction.
Or perhaps we regret the damage our vices have heaped upon us. Our alcoholism cost us our marriage. Our addiction to gambling left us poor as any pauper in a Charles Dickens novel. Our hot temper and boorish behavior have gotten us booted from administrative posts in four law firms.
Sometimes, too, even the little regrets haunt us: the insult that hit a friend like a punch in middle school; the ugly way we dumped a college girlfriend; that raging argument over politics with Uncle Buck that spoiled a Thanksgiving dinner five years ago.
The first cousin of regret is guilt. We resented taking care of our elderly mother in the final years of her life and with her death now feel ashamed and guilt-ridden for those feelings. We look back at the years when we were raising children and wonder why we made so little effort to attend their baseball games and dance recitals.
Meanwhile, our society has a phobia about regret and guilt. We see this in many of our politicians, who apparently lack the ability to say, “Man, I really goofed up.” We see it in our therapeutic culture, where counselors spend a good deal of time trying to erase guilt in their clients.
In her song, Piaf announces that her regrets “are paid, swept away, forgotten” and that she has “set fire to my memories.” At the song’s end, she explains why she’s able to toss her regrets into a dumpster: “Because my life, because my joy/Today … it begins with you!”
This is a beautiful sentiment, but not especially believable. Any guy who could wipe away all of a woman’s past—“my troubles, my pleasures”—would be a superhero of romance.
But is there a healthy side to regret and guilt?
If these emotions are crushing us and our dreams, then the answer is no. We must seek out help.
But remorse can also act as a fine teacher.
Inside of me, for example, is a chamber of ghosts from the past, specters of rue and shame. One or more of them pops up daily, reminding me of the wrongs and injustices I have committed in my life, pointing a finger at the harm I caused to others and to myself.
But here’s the good news: I have learned from these ghosts. Yes, I still hang my head in shame over what I’ve done or left undone, but these regrets make me want to be a better person, to try harder to bring joy and strength to my children, grandchildren, and friends, and to avoid the mistakes that gave birth to these spirits.
Regret, as I say, is first cousin to guilt, but it’s also the mother of holding ourselves responsible for our actions.