There’s nothing like quarantine to develop a good dose of personal regret. When one is home there’s plenty of time to remember mistakes both large and small. Of course remembering is one thing, the regrets are another. Speaking for myself there aren’t enough anti-depressants to address the regrets. If you have time for regret you have have too much time—I know it. But then we’re back to the quarantine.
Years ago I heard the poet Robert Bly tell a lecture hall filled with admirers that Americans are too damned happy, that they need to embrace sorrow more, that this is where liberation lies. So here’s a regret: I’m sorry I believed this. I spent my entire twenties and thirties thinking that being profoundly sad was the key to being artistic and original. I also regret not understanding that sorrow is a very poor teacher since it thrives only on its own stories. I’m sorry I didn’t know sooner that sorrow is a dullard.
I’m sorry for insulting people when I drank too much. Sorry for not listening better to people whose opinions were obviously inconvenient to my fatuous and childlike insistence that I was smarter than almost everyone. (As a disabled young man I had to believe this. How else to swim upstream? I know. But I still regret my green egoism.)
If you’re trapped in your sorrows you can’t understand the pain of others. In fact other people are an inconvenience, they’re competitors in what we in disability culture like to call “the oppression Olympics”—yes, you’re in a bad way, but I’ve got it so much worse. Or, you’ve got it better than me—you’re deaf, you can drive a car.”
Kierkegaard said: “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
He was right. Regret has no judgment and nuance. The hard thing is recognizing life is filled with choices and they all lead to doubts, private rumination, and varieties of melancholy. Sometimes I say to friends “it’s a high gravity world” because sorrows are universal.
There are not many good jokes about regret but I like this one:
A famous professor of surgery died and went to heaven. At the pearly gate he was asked by the gatekeeper:’ Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?” Yes,’ the professor answered.’ When I was a young candidate at the hospital of Saint Lucas, we played soccer against at team from the Community Hospital, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee did not se it so, and the goal won us the match. I regret that now.” Well,’ said the gatekeeper.’ That is a very minor sin. You may enter.” Thank you very much, Saint Peter,’ the professor answered.’ Im am not Saint Peter,’ said the gatekeeper.’ He is having his lunch-break. I am Saint Lucas.’
I don’t like pieties. But I don’t think Americans are too damned happy. This is a nation pushed by overwork and insufficient pay. The quarantine is brutal. I regret I’ve time for regret. And then I don’t.