At a dinner party over the holidays, two people in their fifties were reminiscing about their good old, wild days. As one of them recounted a story too ribald to repeat, the other smiled, sipped a cabernet and sighed, “No regrets. I have no regrets.”
Knowing both individuals for years, familiar with their honorable characters and their good deeds as well as their wild ones, I wondered out loud how that was even possible.
“How can you be good and not have regrets?” I asked them.
It was as if I’d thrown water on a happily crackling campfire. Silence. They both looked at me.
One finally said, “You do?”
“Hell, yeah,” came out of my mouth before I could reverse course. “So many things: Disrespecting my parents, hurting people’s feelings, being rebellious for no reason, choosing to associate with people who did bad things, being thoughtless. I can’t begin to count my regrets. How can you live into your fifties and have none?”
The fire sputtered in agonal gasps. The party was over.
But I am still wondering not only about them individually but about all of us collectively. How does a culture, a civilization maintain itself when the need to repent is considered passé? When morality and manners take a back seat to a good time and an even better story? Maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe what I heard that night is a philosophical fractal and what happens individually is precisely what happens to us collectively. Thus, the question becomes: What allows a person to live such a “full” (or wild) life and have no regrets? This is especially confusing when the persons in question are such good citizens. They are honest, generous, hard-working, devoted to friends and family. Do they actually have regrets but refuse to admit them? Are regrets only for the spiritually unsophisticated? Is it pride? Image?
In the movie, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” there’s a scene with Pee Wee Herman riding his bike and showing off for the kids on the block. He’s turning and twisting, flinging his legs up, down, left and right until he flips himself off the bike, and sprawls akimbo at the boys’ feet. He gets up, brushes himself off and says, “I meant to do that.”
Is it that special pride we find in Hollywood and Washington D.C. that promotes lying loudly and boldly, never admitting a mistake unless, of course, admitting mistakes somehow becomes a form of voter recruitment? Where image is more significant than substance and humility a public form of humiliation?
Perhaps the real problem is that the people at the party, like most young people in western countries now, don’t believe in sin. If there is no absolute moral compass, no guidebook, if morality is a subset of mood and feeling “good” is the barometer of character or value, there can be no repentance. You can’t repent what doesn’t exist.
And if they don’t believe in God or sin, then there is no bigger picture to consider. If molecules collect into life forms randomly and for no purpose other than their own transient existence, your life is your own. Your body is your own. Your decisions are all about you and what you want or don’t want. It comes down to Eros and choosing what gives you pleasure.
But what if it’s not? What if my mistakes, my struggles, my sufferings are not just about me? What if they’re about my husband, who in a crisis, can come to my aid and, thereby, realize the fullness of his love for me? Or about my patients, who, through my suffering gain a deeper level of compassion or the benefit of new understanding on my part? What if seeing the world through the myopia of “my life” misses the big picture that only God can see? What if we are truly connected whether we like it or not?
God always works in paradoxes, where the greatest achievements are born in the dankest, smallest spaces—in mangers, in deserts, in captivity. Regrets, seen through that factual lens, become a measure of a person’s growth, a way to see how far they’ve come: that what used to be acceptable is now unconscionable, that what used to be cool is now tragic.
Having regrets stands in sharp counterpoint to the culture of having it all and being it all. In a God-centered universe (which is, I believe, the only one there is), that is the most calculated and insidious of deceptions. We can’t have it all. And no one is as he or she ought to be. It is impossible. A life of continual regret and repentance is the only honest option.