Regret and the process of living  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

I have never had much problem feeling guilty—not because I do little wrong, mind you, but because forgiveness has always been something I’ve pretty much been able to accept. The guilty feelings tend to diminish when forgiveness is promised or granted, and though I find the need for and act of confession fully unpleasant and deplorable, I’m always pleased the guilt feelings don’t tend to lurk around in the background of my consciousness.

Regret based on shame, on the other hand, now that’s a different story altogether. That lurks interminably and rarely quietly. Moments of deep shame remain carved so deeply into my consciousness that the memory of them can feel more real than whatever is happening at the moment. The cure for shame and guilt, as witnessed by the Christian Story, are related but different. But as we all know, grace is free, but costly to embrace.

Like some feelings of guilt, some shame is simply invalid. Knowing that doesn’t bring instant relief I realize, since the mechanisms we have to trigger both guilt and shame are usually too deeply embedded from the past to be changed easily. Reshaping our conscience and heart to live more fully before God’s face is a process that takes time. Still, learning our regret is invalid can be a helpful first step.

I thought about this when I happened upon a statement in Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. He mentions how often couples say, “I wish we had done this earlier,” expressing regret for having missed the truth of things for long. If I had known this sooner so much pain would have been averted, so many choices could have been made differently. But Schnarch’s response is wise:

What makes you think you could have? It’s taken every bit of development you’ve got to do what you did last night… It takes a long time for a human being to mature. [p. 37]

It’s so easy to forget we are on a pilgrimage, not leaping off a cliff. Growing in knowing and doing is a process, so wishing we could go back and do things over is silly. Not just because time flows in a way that doesn’t allow us access to the past, but because even if I had known then what I know now I most likely could not have processed it adequately to take advantage of it.

The point is not some sort of fatalism, but contentment. Christ, my elder brother is not ashamed of me (talk about a cure for shame! See Hebrews 2:11) and is the One graciously ordering my pilgrimage (see Hebrews 2:11 again).

Contentment and patience, as we are reminded by John Newton:

I have been thirty years forming my own views; and in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two. [p. 60-61]

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I've been in some similar (but different) situations, one in particular where something could have happened earlier, but ended up happening. When discussing this with a friend, he said to me that given that its worked out so well, despite the extra time and hurt that it took, its hard to say that if it had happened earlier it would have been better (or even the same at all).
I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett's trouser legs of time, an allusion to the apparently obvious but actually quite deep fact that you can't prove a counterfactual. It seems quite cold to apply this philosophy to something as complex and subtle as regret, or shame, but I think its part of it. Thoughts?

February 4, 2010 at 3:02 PM

This will be our breakfast reading today, Denis. Thank you so much.

February 6, 2010 at 9:53 AM

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