Regret Versus Remorse and Why We Need to Feel Both

14/01/2015 11:57 | Updated 15 March 2015

Before my father died, I wrote him a long letter about what he had meant to me and how much I adored and loved him. I learnt that to my father's dying day, the letter remained beside his bed and he would frequently re-read it. I LOVED my father, a deep, moving love in which whatever wrong I had committed, knowingly or unknowingly, was irrelevant- the unconditional affection that came from my papa is something I have never experienced since.

Deep love resembles deep remorse in the depth of its sheer emotion. Remorse stirs up huge feelings of guilt and sadness at something which we have done and by which we will measure ourselves forever. Remorse is the memory one wishes one didn't have. Regret on the other hand, is the facile, skin-deep attempt at sorrow and which is usually followed by no change in behaviour whatsoever. The Chairman of the Board regrets to decline your kind invitation, etc. The adulterer regrets cheating on his wife. The mistress regrets being a mistress and so on. Remorse on the other hand is the catatonic reaction to all of the above.

I always read very old books, preferably from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, where the written word conveyed the tragic-comedy of human existence without the more colloquial familiarity of modern-day authors. The concept of regret versus remorse has posed a moral dilemma forever. Since time immemorial, philosophers have sat around reflecting endlessly on why they suffer more from regret than remorse- and are pained to discover how vain their own thinking is. Remorse stirs up connotations of guilt after pleasure, a theme that has filled entire libraries and even started wars.

Last week we had the most awful and tragic events take place in Paris. None of it made any sense and now that the dust has settled and sadly, the French have begun to bury their dead, there is a tortuous cloud of regret and despair hanging over the capital and indeed every Western country on the planet. The Latin word for remorse is paenitentia which translates as 'repentance' or 'penitence'. When we do bad things, our soul must experience a type of penance that leads to atonement and moral retribution. However much it has become fashionable to be an atheist, we cannot ignore the root of our language which is found in the concept of a God who demands that we occasionally examine the very core of our being. (Interestingly, had language evolved without a God-like figurehead serving as arbiter and insisting that we be guided by moral parameters, one wonders how humanity would have endured. Atheists would have us believe that none of this actually matters but that argument is hollow when we can look back and see the 2,000 years of history in the Western world that is due in large part to a hunger for faith. This raises an interesting conundrum at the heart of the attacks in Paris last week given that they were supposedly about a faith.) But let us return to regret and remorse.

Frank Sinatra famously sang, "regrets I've had a few but then again, too few to mention." I concur. I regret very little in my life but I do suffer with a mild case of remorse every now and then. But there is only so much wringing of hands one can tolerate in a lifetime and I am quite thrilled to be able to slam doors shut and exclaim, "Tomorrow is another day!" Without such an ability to pursue happiness despite tragedy and to maintain an effervescent optimism (and this despite the car literally hanging off the cliff), well, these are great attributes which show a strength of character that separates the men from the boys, in my humble opinion. Of course, one should suffer, and suffer, and suffer even more for all the bad things one has done but if that was all we were wont to do, the earth would literally screech to a halt and we would all be catapulted into space (or essentially, nothingness).

As always, I find an understanding of this crazy world in the natural cycle of life found in the woods on my daily walks. Plants and animals do not walk around tormented by guilt, drowning in a need for penance and a wracked conscience. This is a human failing, perhaps to not move onwards and away from the errors and mistakes we are destined to make. Or worse yet, to not even see them as they come hurtling towards us.

Perhaps in the wake of CharlieHebdo, we should all remember the fragility of human life, whatever our beliefs.


Photo copyright S. van Dalen