I have made a
[as if anyone
can make just one
and now I must make
[as if anyone
can make just one
I must endure this
[if one could touch it
the hand would shatter]
and I must drink this
[if one could taste it
the tongue would blister]
this host and chalice
I serve, to me
I have meant to write on this topic since I started the blog over three years ago. That it has taken so long says how hard it has been to tie strings together. That I am writing it now does not necessarily mean that I have. But pressing on, here are thoughts about mistakes, regrets, self-forgiveness and the self.
With respect to the poem above: it is not a cry for help. It is just a depressing poem.
We agree on various names for acts of bad behavior, depending on context and severity. When one violates the law of the state, society calls it a crime. When one fails to live up to the moral code of a religion, the church calls it a sin. When a politician gets caught, he calls it a mistake and he sets off on an orchestrated rehabilitation tour. (The mistake he regrets most is that he let himself be caught.)
I could charitably categorize some of my mistakes as errors in judgment, but that would be a minority. And while I still make social mistakes such as gaffes and faux pas, those have declined over time. When I make mistakes now, it is typically because I have been careless and have stepped on someone else’s feelings. These are the important ones.
I don’t go out of my way to hurt other people. If and when I do, it is because I have been absorbed in myself or my agenda, poorly tuned into the person I am dealing with.
The unfortunate part of this is, if the person you hurt has forgotten about the incident or is no longer around to forgive you, then your act of poor behavior just hangs out there in history, indefinitely, leaving you to pay penance with feelings of regret. For as long as it takes you to forget.
Christopher Hitchens, from his memoir Hitch-22: “I distinguish remorse from regret in that remorse is sorrow for one what did do whereas regret is misery for did one not do.” As much as I like Hitchens, I cite him only to disagree with him. I am more partial to the findings of behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow:
Regret is an emotion and it is also a punishment that we administer to ourselves… The emotional state … is “accompanied by feelings that one should have known better, by a sinking feeling, by thoughts about the mistake one has made and the opportunities lost, by a tendency to kick oneself and correct one’s mistake, and by wanting to undo the event and to get a second chance.”
Kahneman cites studies to support his argument that people feel more regret from having taken an action than from having abstained from action. I agree. I review and judge my actions more carefully than I do my non-actions, and reasonably so: whereas one’s actions are countable, the acts one might have done but did not do are infinite.
I am sensitive to the wrongs I do — the problem often seems to be that I sense it too late, then the moment is over, and people have moved on. Except for me.
Why do I look at old mistakes with such fresh regret, as if I had done my misdeeds this very day? It seems that my brain has a knack for stamping the authority of memory on such events (as do the brains of the people I wronged!) precisely so that my brain can remind me of them and take me down a notch, when I am being too sure of myself.
My brain doesn’t care that I am not the same person in terms of maturity or values as I was when I originally screwed up. No, neurons are heartless. (They have some nerve!) My neurons remember what I thought and how I behaved way back when, no matter that I have changed since then. It is as if I am doomed to see myself as the world’s worst PONG player, based on a few notable defeats at the college dorm, even though no one remembers or cares about PONG forty years later. Game over, you loser.
Maybe I should donate my medial orbitofrontal cortex to science when I am done with it. (Yes, you may follow the link to see what I’m talking about, as long as you come back here when you are done.)
Forgiving and Forgetting
Think about this. What a person remembers about you is their impression of your last encounter. To that person, you are whatever happens to be his or her last memory of you, unless or until you replace it with some other impression. It is not the first impression but the last that really counts.
Among those I have known, there are some whose last encounter with me involved my being argumentative, or inconsiderate, or plaintive, or obnoxious, or otherwise not my best. These people will ever remember me negatively, for reason. How can I argue? Should I expect them to do the mental accounting and add a certain number of years of wisdom to the person they last saw? No, I don’t expect it — because I don’t do that kind of accounting myself.
People have long memories. Just as I remember the junior-high and senior-high school bullies and jerks, my mistakes are preserved as memories in the minds of those I wronged, if they were to be reminded of them. Forgiving and forgetting: two sides of the same coin.
I have no evidence that the people who treated me poorly in the past, for no good reason and without apologies, ever re-examined their behavior and feel regret. The best I can do is forget them. I have no use for grudges — a waste of emotional energy. I hope those who I wronged but never apologized to have forgotten me and hold no grudges against me. That too is the best I can expect.
On the Self
I am not nearly the same person now that I was at 14, when I went to the junior-high prom and as the evening went on I danced mostly with a different girl than the one I had invited to the prom. (Is it narcissistic to think that my date was hurt and outraged by this but has now forgotten about it? Yes.) But how much ownership of my teen behavior and mistakes do I retain? What is the statute of limitations? What gives a person the right to selectively own or disown one’s past acts? And how can a person logically wave away one’s youthful mistakes without also discounting one’s youthful achievements?
Maybe what lets us disown past mistakes while taking credit for past accomplishments is the act of admitting and renouncing mistakes and, more importantly, not repeating them. A mistake repeated is a behavior; bad behavior ingrained becomes a personality disorder. A mistake not repeated for a very long period of time can help rebuild trust in oneself and one’s character — though it means nothing to the long-ago wronged.
I always liked what “Red” had to say (thanks to Steven King) at his final parole hearing at Shawshank State Penitentiary:
There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.
In the movie, after his eloquent speech, Red’s parole application was stamped APPROVED and he was released from prison.
This blog post was more self-revealing than truth-revealing. I too am released, now free to go find that rock that has no earthly business being in that field, under that tree.