Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No regrets? Not so fast

Today I'm putting up a post by the accomplished Zen Teacher, James Ford, because I think it's an important subject. I'll insert some comments, because I think James' touch on this is a little light.  As a daughter of alcoholics, I've been the victim of people who fall somewhere on the scale between ordinary greedy egotist and sociopath.  Thus I think "no regrets" is a pernicious discarding of responsibility.
Here's James:
A Facebook friend posted a note about his regretting behaviors of a few years back. Comments followed. Among them a voice in defense of not regretting holding opinions that the writer saw as going against the tide, and nobly so. Sure. And…
The defenses of ego are strong. And, absolutely, sometimes they defend true things.
But, it was also said in context of someone expressing regret for past behaviors, and the writer’s friends seemed as likely as not to offer excuses.
And, it set me to thinking about our current ambiguous relationship to regret.
I looked up regret and quotes and saw they pretty much were all in favor of not having regrets. They tended to range from such comments as “Accept everything about yourself – I mean everything, you are you and that is the beginning and the end – no apologies, no regrets” from politician, and to some, war criminal Henry Kissinger, or, financial guru & motivational speaker Suze Orman’s fuzzy feel warm advice “When you’re happy you find pure joy in your life. There are no regrets in this state of happiness – and that’s a goal worthy striving for in all areas of life.” The list of people who were credited with the line, or very close to it, “I have no regrets,” included Edward Teller, Robert Redford, Jack Kevorkian, George McGovern, Ed Koch, Dionne Warwick, and Edward Snowden.
File:Zimmerman, George - Seminole County Mug.jpg
. . . and George Zimmerman
No regrets?
Now, another comment in that thread warned about wallowing in regrets. And a good warning, no doubt. And, again, in a context where someone was confessing to something that seemed regretful to me.
It is my observation that suggestion that regret can be obsessive, a poison in its own way, has often become an excuse.
What we seem to be invited into is a careening path of self-justification.
The ego has its ways to justify pretty much any behavior.
And our contemporary culture is more than happy to conspire with our egos, particularly if it can be accompanied by the sale of a product or service.
[I'm betting this manufacturer has no regrets at all about selling automatic weapons that end up being used to kill schoolchildren.]
Here’s the deal.
We are complex creatures. While it is in fact a bit too simplistic the Two Wolves story attributed to the Cherokee tradition that we have two wolves living in us, one that acts for the good, the other toward ill, and we need to be careful which one we feed can be helpful. Too simplistic because we in fact are a whole zoo of creatures. And the keepers. And the visitors. We are the giraffe. We are the keepers who put it down. We are the lions who ate the remains.
[When it comes to, oh, gobbling up fossil fuels and watering our lawns and destroying the planet, we are lemmings. Regret it.]  
If the image of zoo offends, let me offer another one, we, you and I, are, each of us, a forest. The rest follows, pretty much the same…
We are multitudes.
And, I have found in my life, by paying attention to what I do with as open a heart as possible, does indeed lead me to regrets.
I contain multitudes. And there are parts of me that are not pleasant. In another Facebook feed I commented on how I’ve started a class that teaches seventeenth century style dueling. A friend suggested I might be happier engaging a Chinese style martial art. My response was, but, I want something where I can hurt someone.
Mostly a joke.
I contain multitudes.
And I think it wise to pay attention to the parts that step to the front. The parts that take action. And what those actions are. For just a moment, for just a heartbeat, not justifying, not denying, just looking.
And perhaps it leads to a pang of regret.
[And quite likely, in the words of the song, you "never intended to hurt anyone."  But you still did.  And that's regrettable.]
Which can be magic. With that hint of regret there several paths open. One is our old friend, to deny, or mitigate, neither of which is much different than the other. Another is to wallow in regret. Which is its own illness…
[a note:  Guilt is a whole-body thing, and basically useless; regret is a cognition, an insight in the mind, though it can make the body squirm.]
And, the other is to notice that isn’t really the animal I want to feed, and to change course.
We are, as one friend has put it, the unpredictable animal.
We can change.
And regret can be the little warning sign.
The canary in the coal mine.
Opening new worlds.
So, my wish for us all, is that we find our regrets, and sooner than later.
We all might be a bit better off for it…
[Grandma's advice to the young - when you find you're dating the guy or working for the woman who brags about No Regrets, ever, meaning they think they've never done anything wrong, you might consider a psychiatric evaluation.  Of them, if possible.  Or a new job.


  1. Yes. To all of it. Because that's exactly my opinion about the "no regrets" thing.

  2. Before you regret not doing enough, think about having you & your sangha sign this: