Monday, September 20, 2010

Striving to Regret

This year's Kol Nidre service was especially meaningful for me. There's a difference between attending a service because you know you're expected to be there, and actually going and feeling like you were meant to be there--that you're in the right place. I went by myself to a minyan at Beth Jacob, a modern Orthodox shul here in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles; it was called "I Wish I Got More Out of Services," arranged by Michael Borkow, who articulated one of the most interesting ideas over the course of the evening.

In introducing the Ma'ariv, he suggested that one of the most meaningful lessons we can learn from Yom Kippur--or, rather, that we should take the time to consider during Yom Kippur--is how important it is that we strive to regret. And then he took it one step further, and suggested that we should strive for the sensitivity that would allow us to regret.

On its face, it looks and sounds like crazy talk. All sorts of psychologists and self-help books will tell us that living with regret can be lethal. But the trick is to see regret not as a final product, but as part of the process that allows us to truly atone--a place through which we must pass on our way to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and to know G-d. Perhaps regret is the process that allows us to become more human. We bask in the raw emotion that we experience when we allow ourselves to feel regret. Regret breeds remorse, and remorse creates a deeper sense of our own infinite responsibility to others.

Regret, Borkow reminded us, cannot be the stopping point. We are not cut out for a life lived under the shadow of one long shriek of regret. I recently had a conversation with someone about this very idea. I told him there are things in my life--decisions, behavior, actions--that I regret. He told me that he had no regrets. And which of us was right? Which the better human?

Regret functioning as an end point for me, as something better left untapped for him. I suppose we had both missed the mark, which rested somewhere in the movement between our two approaches. It's alway about the ellipses, isn't it?


Casey said...

I hope it doesn't ruin the mood to reply from the Christian tradition, with a little excerpt from Jonathan Edwards:

Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up. I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever I had before my conversion. It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind; of all that have been, since the beginning of the world to this time; and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell. When others, that have come to talk with me about their soul concerns, have expressed the sense they have had of their own wickedness, by saying that it seemed to them, that they were as bad as the devil himself; I thought their expressions seemed exceeding faint and feeble, to represent my wickedness.

I realized while teaching this the other day to my students that it has probably been difficult for anyone in our generation, raised on "warm fuzzies" and the self-esteem movement, to access this kind of thinking. My students actually were paying attention as we looked at this passage, but they simply couldn't understand it. They had no inclination to regret, no desire to be humbled, etc. Maybe it will come, inevitably, with age and maturity, even to them?

Monica said...

You're right about this generation. We're dealing with college students whose parents obsessively baby-proofed their homes (consequence--a child never needs to learn not to touch the vase on the coffee table), made sure that everything was wiped down constantly with sanitizer (consequence--they get sick all the time once they get to college and live in filth), and who refrained from telling their kids "no," preferring instead to ask them what they were feeling when they punched that other 4-year-old on the playground.

Of course they don't understand regret. They weren't taught to regret their actions. Then again, I was raised in an environment where everything was off-limits and I was constantly being punished; consequently, I regret easily. There's got to be some kind of balance. Maybe you, Casey, as a new father, can bring balance back to parenting.

Kevin said...

This post slipped by me somehow--but a belated thanks. I find this helpful.

I've often been floored by folks who say they HAVE no regrets--which sounds crazy. (Isn't to improve to regret? "I wish I'd learned this years ago...")

On your more charitable reading, though, perhaps what they really meant to convey by saying they HAD no regrets is that they decline to HARBOR them.

I wonder if the problem (or at least, mine) is reading 'I have no regrets' less performatively than I should. I suppose I've been interpreting this claim as if the speaker were issuing a historical report on regret they had (not) experienced--which made them sound pathological; but perhaps, in stating this, they were not reporting a fact at all, but announcing their resolve to let pangs of regret maintain their natural state as PANGS, and nothing more--i.e. they were announcing a policy not to permit these pangs to settle into pains of a more persistent, knawing sort, whereby the past feeds parasitically on the present.
Not denial, but a process: acknowledge, interpret, expunge...

EnthyAlias said...

While I appreciate the personal, reflective journey through regret as a necessary part of atonement, I don't see how regret can transition into atonement in a vacuum of self-reflection.

Aside from a relationship with one's G-d, our regrets are often something tangibly marking our relationships with one another. We are haunted by the knowledge of how other's have suffered at our hands, and no amount of self-reflection can necessarily assuage the regret that stems from that knowledge (as opposed to regretting a missed opportunity, let's say).

How can we avoid regret as an end point until we pursue forgiveness from those we have hurt? As you say, we must confront the consequences of knocking over the vase or punching the kid on the playground if we're to understand the true debt we owe.

And those consequences are in this life. Therefore shouldn't the atonement take place in this life as well? What kind of ethic is invoked if the only forgiveness we seek is G-d's?

Shannon said...

There is no correct answer to individual’s meaning of regret. We all live by our own perceptions of things. I live by the philosophy of "no regrets;” however, I see the significant point your Rabi made. If we choose to perceive "regret" as a word associated with "victim," or “regret as a word associated with "conscience," we must experience regret to pursue repentance and forgiveness! Some of us, like me, just choose to eliminate that word from our vocabulary because it makes us feel victimized by our own poor behaviors and/or choices versus our progress by learning from them.