11 June 2012

On Regret and Sadness

Emma asks, If I drive down a street and accidentally hit a dog is it regret or sadness I feel?  I think she asks two questions actually: what distinguishes regret from sadness, and what is regret?
And so let me see if I can begin to consider how to distinguish the phenomenon of regret from that of sadness. (Though even as I write I am wondering if feeling sad is different than the experience of sadness? If I change the word don’t I also change the experience!) The Oxford English Dictionary defines regret as “some sorrow or disappointment due to some external event or circumstance.”  The word regret also refers “to sorrow or pain due to reflection on something one has done or undone.” I suppose that a felt sorry or pain for that which is ‘not done’ would also be included in the definition of regret. Now the dictionary also refers to regret as sorrow “at or for some loss or deprivation for a lost thing or person.” I think that in all three definitions regret is a passive response and accomplishes nothing. That is, though reflection appears to be an activity, in regret one recollects on what is no more and cannot any longer receive any action. One might feel active in the experience of regret but regret requires that nothing more be done; to feel regret requires that no further action be taken.
By the first definition regret seems rather akin to sadness: the regret being an emotional state inspired by some external event or circumstance and accompanied by sorrow or disappointment. Sad is a state characterized by sorrow! When I look up the word ‘sorrowful’ I find in its definition the word ‘sad.’ Now, sad has some interesting meanings: for example, bread that has not risen is referred to as ‘sad,’ and soil that is stiff and heavy is ‘sad.’ But I believe that the sad to which Emma refers means ‘sorrowful or mournful.’ Now, sorrow refers to “a distress of mind caused by loss, suffering, disappointment, etc.” (It’s a chase without end, this looking to words to define a word! ‘Distress’ means: ‘to cause pain, suffering, agony or anxiety to; to afflict, vex, or make miserable’). So sorrow refers to the experience of a troubled/unpleasant/painful psychological state; sorrow refers to “grief, deep sadness, or regret” (oh, no! there is that word again!). As a noun ‘sorrow’ refers to that which causes grief, deep sadness or regret.
Thus, it would seem that the concept ‘sad’ seems to inhere to the meaning of regret and sorrow, and the latter seems to suggest some intensity or extremity to the sadness. But nevertheless, implied in regret (Remember Alice?) is the belief that there has been some active complicity in an external event or circumstance and that the outcome of this event did not turn out the way it had been planned and that this unwanted result has led to the feeling known as regret. In this formulation there appears to be some activity involved in regret. I cannot suffer regret over something I have not done. I must have done something, even if what I have done is not have done something. That is, for example I should not feel regret when someone driving my car has run over a dog; but I can regret that I allowed someone else to drive my car. I should not regret that rather than to have chosen another route on which perhaps the dog would not be present, I chose to turn down the particular street on which the dog was walking and I happened to run it over. Unless, of course, I knew that the street was itself overrun with dogs and there was no chance I would avoid running over a dog. I could never have known when I lent out the car or turned on the street that this event would occur. And so the sorrow or disappointmentthe regretis directed not at the event itself, for which I might experience sadnessbut at the universe in which such contingency is always at play. What I regret is that I was not omniscient. Which is absurd because omniscience is not a quality that belongs to human beings despite the exalted possession of it claimed by various politicians and clergy. As Philip Roth suggests, getting it wrong is what life is all about, in which case sadness is inevitable but regret absent of meaning. Purposeless. 
And so I think the assumption of activity on the part of regret is specious because, in fact, regret derives not from the activity but from its avoidance. One can only regret by situating oneself in the past where activity is outside the realm of possibility. Nothing can be done in the past; indeed, for that matter, nothing can be done in the future. Only the present enables action. Indeed, the only way to avoid regret is to cease all activity. This reminds me of Merry in American Pastoral whose Jainism requires that she live in squalor and don a face mask to prevent her harming even accidentally any living thing. Merry becomes ironically a complete victim. Needless to say (I am uttering an apophasis), Merry adopts this stance after having killed four people in terrorist bombings as part of her anti-war activities. Indeed, she expresses no regret for her deeds. But her Jainism is not regret but active response: her activity transforms her into a victim.
However, if in the first place I meant to be cruel and set out to run over a dog, then I suffer would not experience regret anyway!
In the second definition above, regret occurs “on reflection” of the event and is not itself inherent in the event. That is, here regret does not occur as a part of any event but rather, results (again) as a consequence of the event’s end that could not (again) be known at its beginning. Regret results when the world did not turn out as one had expected! But then, I suggest, how could any end ever be known at its beginning? Even the Nazis got it wrong! Getting it wrong is what life is all about. Dewey once said that any experiment that turned out exactly as planned was a useless experiment in which nothing was learned but what was already known at the beginning. Or, to offer my own humble idea: if we knew the end at the beginning, then the end already exists in the past. Two things seem to follow here: first, in this case one would live in the past, and second, however I get to that end becomes acceptable. Any means to the end will serve which perhaps is not all that different from the end justifying the means. In such a situation, as long as the end set at the beginning is realized, then regret does not exist regardless of means. But if one does experience a regret, then that experience holds the individual to a past that cannot be altered, and to ‘reflect’ on that past absolves any engagement in the present. Regret becomes a strategy for avoiding life.
In the third definition, regret is the realization of a loss experienced as the result of the loss of thing or person. I regret losing my jewelry, my innocence or my friend. Seneca talks about the uselessness of grief that I am equating here to regret. The wise man, says Seneca, does not hanker after what he has lost,” though, of course, he does prefer not to lose those things! Seneca’s correspondent, Lucilius, has experienced the death of a friend, and Seneca suggests to him that tears may be appropriate to the experience but that lamentations are not. “Would you like to know what lies behind extravagant weeping and wailing? In our tears we are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it.” I think that Seneca addresses the concept of regret at which I aim. In this description regret is a product of vanity: it is ourselves we mean to display in our expressions of regret. Seneca remarks that “Nobody really cares to cast his mind back to something which he is never going to think of without pain,” but in fact, the person who lives in regret revels in the pain.
The answer to the uses of regret lies in the definition. Contingency is the state of the world and therefore, regret is useless. Who would plan an event in which failure was the end and then continue to reflect on the failure rather than work for attainment?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alas...I am blessed by another of your blogs which resonates within me. I have much sadness and regret these days. So much so that I know not where to put all of it. Perhaps a dumpster...or landfill? Ahh, but my ego would miss it so. She loves to revel.

And I am surely not as stoic as Seneca may have been! I can't imagine assuming an unaffected countenance when experiencing passion, joy or greif! If I would have lived then and met him, I doubt we would have been friends. What would we have spoken of so earnestly upon meeting up? Oh no, Seneca is not for me. At least not where I am now. Perhaps on another journey.

Define the words regret and sadness as you will or even let the "Jack of Hearts steal them clean away" and I would still feel something even though I wouldn't have a name for the "something." Are not words simply labels we use to find common ground in the landscape of language for communicating?

Phillip Roth's suggestion, "getting it wrong is what life is all about," plucks my guitar strings as well. But by agreeing I'd have to admit that the Republican politicians REALLY know what life is all about since they REALLY are getting it wrong these days! Enough said.

12 June, 2012 06:41  

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