Regret is signature characteristic of grief. Now, that statement may not be terribly consoling for most people experiencing grief, but in many ways, it is forced upon us because of our position in time. The word “regret” has an interesting history that might reveal some insights for us to understand the importance, even the urgency of experiencing our regret. The fascinating thing about the origins of the word regret is the Germanic word for “greet.” In a sense, if you think about it, regret is to “re-greet” or revisit our interactions with someone and think through the consequences of that interaction. As we do so, we see what could have been done, or could have been said, and we feel repentant of our actions. The reality is that “regret” is often the modern equivalent of an expression of repentance. Interestingly, Henry David Thoreau reminds us of the importance of regret when he said, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” To regret deeply is to live afresh??? Regret feels like suffering grief all over again. Not only do we feel the pain of the absence of the person we love, but now we add regret into the mess? Actually the answer to that is “yes.”
The process of grief is a process of healing, and with healing comes necessary pain and reminders of what has happened. It is a necessity to grief because of the love we have for the person we have lost. If we didn’t love, we wouldn’t grieve. Therefore, in response to the above quote, our regret is a demonstration of our love for the person we have lost. Just as tears are a memorial to the love we have for the person lost, our regret underscores how important our relationship with him/her is to us. Therefore, when we come to the place in time where the person is gone, it’s natural for us to look back over the course of the history we have shared with the person we love. For most of us, that doesn’t happen while the person is alive. Life courses on like a river made up of a variety of events and interactions – loving, insensitive and neglectful, forgiving, gracious, joyful, sorrowful and moments of sacrifice. At the death of our loved one, the river comes to an end (of course this is where the metaphor breaks down). It seemingly disappears from sight, and we are left with the feeling of lostness I was commenting on in an earlier post. As I said there, the question comes: “Now what?” Well, the “now what” is that our vision is drawn back in time to recall and relish our relationship with them. Of course, with this revisiting in time, we become aware of our insensitivity, our unintentional comments that hurt, our failures in our relationship with them. What rises out of us is regret. On the heels of that regret is usually a long list of “if only’s.” If only I had been aware. If only I had retracted the words I said at that time. If only… The worst part of the regret that afflicts us during our grieving is that we seemingly can’t make it “right.” We can’t repent directly to the person and receive the forgiveness he/she would most likely give. It seems that our regret throws us headlong into a massive “dead end” sign (interesting phrase, isn’t it?). Yet, even in this attempt to make things right, we are trying to resurrect the dead. Our focus has to be on the living. The “here and now” not the “there and then.” To which “living” am I referring? You and me and those we love! We are the living in the relationship we are grieving. We are where the focus now has to be. It’s the choices we now make toward those we love that allows us to “live life afresh” as Henry David Thoreau put it. Not only that, it’s the choices we make about ourselves that is the foundation for how we care for the living.
Remember, earlier when I said that regret appears to be the modern equivalent for repentance? I think there is something profound hidden in that observation. If you review our language toward one another when we have failed or hurt another person, it is rare that we actually use the “repent.” Usually we use the words, “I’m sorry.” It’s our code for “I repent of what I have done.” Furthermore, the word sorry comes from the word “sorrow.” In other words, what I am saying is “I am filled with sorrow because of what I have done and how I’ve hurt you.” Of course, that is way too wordy for our emphasis on the economy of words! But allow me to fill out our understanding of the word “repent” and by extension the word “regret.” In Scripture, “repent” has different meanings (and words) in the Old Testament and the New Testament. To put it succinctly, the ancient Hebrew doesn’t really have a single word for our word repent. The closest equivalent is “to return” (the word teshuvah). In the ancient Greek, the word repent usually is conveyed with the word “metanoia.” This is usually is rendered a “change of mind.” Therefore, I think I’m on safe ground to say that if we look at the entirety of Scripture and what it communicates about repentance is that it is a change of mind that leads to a change in direction (to return). As a matter of fact, Jesus vividly portrays repentance in his parable of the prodigal son (or should it be called the “prodigal father?”). While in the far country, the prodigal “comes to his senses,” changes his mind (metanoia), and heads for home(teshuvah), and by an act of his father (forgiveness) is restored to his original position in the family (reconciliation).
So, what does all this word study and language references have to do with regret? I thought I would allow you to get a good snooze in before I find my punchline! The desired outcome of our expressions of regret is our response to grace. Many would think, and have said, we need to learn to “forgive ourselves.” My response to this assertion is that using the word “forgiveness” in response to ourselves keeps the whole process within our control, and we don’t have to suffer the indignity of receiving and accepting grace for our human failures which is ultimately where restoration can be found. So, in response to our regret, it isn’t forgiveness we need (since the person can’t provide it anyway), it’s the humility to accept the grace we have been provided to make the necessary changes for the living we are still among. The great, world-renowned philosopher Sylvester Stallone (just kidding of course) once said, “I have tons of regrets, but I think that’s one of the reasons that push people to create things. Out of their angst, their regret, comes the best from artists, painters and writers.” Ironically, I think Sly Stallone has stumbled on to a profound truth, and learned(probably) the hard way about regrets. He highlights for us just how essential they are for our future, not our past. Thankfully, we have been provided grace and forgiveness empowering us to become more like Christ through our journey with Him. The added benefit to that is that those around us reap the harvest of our willingness to accept the empowering grace to treat them differently in the future.