Wednesday, September 19, 2007


On Loss and Regrets

Non ! Rien de rien
Non ! Je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal tout ça m'est bien égal !

Thus sings Edith Piaff, in her usual, slightly lisping pathos:

I regret nothing at all, she croons, I have no regrets at all, anything that ever happened to me, the good I received, the bad I well deserved. It’s all done with, gone!

No! Nothing, nothing!
I regret nothing at all
All is paid for,
swept away, over and done
I don’t give a hoot for the past!

All my memories
Of sorrows or pleasures
I put a match to them
I do not need them anymore!

Gone are the memories
Of love’s treachery and torment
I brushed them aside for good
I’m starting from zero!

No! Nothing, nothing!
I regret nothing at all!
Because my life, because my joys
Today, they start with you!

What does she not regret? She does not regret the cumulative sorrows of her past nor the happy moments she experienced. She feels so happy and full of hope with the new love of her life, that all else is not only forgotten but totally erased. She starts with a clean slate.

What about regret? Is it a gratuitous, useless way of dealing with the past?

I’ve heard people say that they don’t waste time regretting their past, by which they usually mean, past choices. True, it’s no use anyway, because the past is in a way immortal, there to stay, a silent tombeau for our life journey this far. Nothing can undo it. Still, I wonder. These people who can shrug away less than salutary choices, mistakes, the damage they have done to other people through those mistakes, or their bad judgments. When we regret the past, we do not regret that it happened but we acknowledge that our thinking was faulty, that our behaviour was selfish, or indifferent, when our understanding should have been keener.

Many examples of regrets in literature, this is one of the most poignantly heart felt:

"Jane, I never meant to wound you thus. If the man who had but onelittle ewe lamb that was dear to him as a daughter, that ate of hisbread and drank of his cup, and lay in his bosom, had by somemistake slaughtered it at the shambles, he would not have rued hisbloody blunder more than I now rue mine. Will you ever forgive me?" (Jane Eyre, ch. 27)

Regretting the past means we have learned our lesson. A mistake once made is regrettable but understandable, due to non-experience. A mistake repeated is no longer excusable, and points to a certain fault within ourselves. If we are aware of friendships and reciprocity, we will rue that second mistake, we will hold ourselves accountable for whatever grief it has brought to other people. It’s not guilt-tripping I’m speaking of, or amends being made. Those, indeed, are useless. No patched-up relationship can ever compare to what has been lost. Scars may fade but they do not disappear.

It’s no use regretting a past in which I had no agency. It is useful to regret past decisions made by self which led to unhappy consequences. If I regret making that decision, chances are I will avoid repeating such a decision in future. Not regretting a past is like loving oneself too well, or having a sort of fatalistic view of one’s life, or professing complete indifference to people we hurt in the process of making wrong choices.

I recently read somewhere that indifference is the first rung of unfriendliness. I think I would agree with this description. To be indifferent to someone means that her pain or joy does not affect in any way my own well being. A lack of friendliness does not mean hostility, but it can feel like hostility, to those we are indifferent to.

In the order of our daily travails, I guess few things hurt more than the indifference of those who once were our friends, or lovers.

I heard this poem today and thought how well it exemplifies that sorrow, that sadness we feel when we lose someone’s cherished regard:

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther losing faster:
places and names and where it was your meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last or
next-to-last of three loved housed went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lose two cities lovely ones. And vaster
some realms I owned two rivers a continent.
I miss them but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing is not too hard to master
though it may look like (write it) disaster.


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