It should surprise no one that I’ve experienced very, very few moments of moral clarity in Irish pubs. I’m not saying none, just not very many. But I’ve also not hung out with many Pentecostal theologians in Irish pubs, nor, prior to the event in question, had I ever ordered a french dip in an Irish pub. And this latter point, among others, brings us to the matter of regret.
I’ve been wanting to dig into this topic for a few weeks, but it’s been a thorny one to get my head around. Important, because regret is a fundamental part of the adult emotional landscape, but also difficult, and relevant. I’m not here to spill out over the side about my personal history – that would bore even me – but as a twice divorced man I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that my personal library of regrets is rich, varied and extensive. It’s the library of Alexandria. It’s the goddamn library of congress. I can spend hours browsing the stacks, and I do. That part isn’t difficult. What I find much harder in my personal experience is finding the right way to put the library in order. Because what you want, of course (and hold on because I am going to belabor the hell out of this metaphor) is a sort of research library. You want it to be a place you can go to reflect on past missteps and collect data to support your next round of decisions. But it ends up not being quite that easy. The books all move around on the shelves. The card catalog (oh yeah, I’m all-in on this theme) is in disarray. Why?
As an aside, that this is where writing about this stuff gets tricky. That whole library motif is twee as hell, but it worked as far as the idea, or at least I think it did. Still, here I am breaking the fourth wall and layering in the requisite prophylactic, ironic distance, which means that I’m still uneasy with it. And unfortunately for you, I can get away with doing that because it’s a blog, and there’s no editor to make me take paragraphs like this one out. Your patience, dear reader, is appreciated.
Anyway, what is it that so complicates the question of regret, when we try to make use of those regrets in real life? The question interests me, partly because it’s relevant to my own shit, but also because I think it points back to one of the basic tensions in our cultural and intellectual lives. Namely, the friction between our expectation of linear, progressive narratives, and the recursive messiness of actual existence.
A quick thesis: though I’m no expert on Hegel, I’m aware of living in the long shadow cast by his conception of history as a series of necessary actions pointing always in one, progressive direction. And the only difference between me and anyone else is that little detail of being aware of it. Enlightenment notions of progress, of inexorable movement toward a higher state of being, are so woven into the fabric of our culture that nearly everyone subscribes to them without ever needing to have been conscious that they are doing so. We structure our thought that way. We expect the same things from our lives. And we don’t have to think about it that much, so we seldom do.
I have these pet peeves in language and belief, which I’ve discussed here before. One of these is the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s yet another of those little markers of intellectual laziness. I interpret it to mean, “I don’t know why anything happens, but I don’t want to think about it, so I’m prepared to assume that there’s some sort of plan that I’d prefer not to have to define.”
Here’s the problem. Made seriously, the assertion that everything – everything – happens for a reason is an astonishing statement of the most profound faith. Something bugs me about so massive a claim being made without any sort of rigor behind it. More to the point, something really bugs me about the idea of a profound and fully invested faith in something that the believer hasn’t bothered to define. This is the spiritual and intellectual equivalent of bungee jumping minus the bungee. And it’s more or less the cultural norm.
I want to be clear here – it’s not the faith part of the equation that bothers me. If it were, drinking with Pentecostal theologians in Irish pubs would be even more awkward than it already is. Faith, thoughtfully arrived at, poses no problem for me. I may be skeptical, I may not share it, but anyone who’s seriously undertaken that kind of journey and gotten somewhere they want to be is fine by me. My friends believe things that I do not, but they got there through hard work (and acculturation and upbringing; all of our intellectual lives are elaborate acts of confirmation bias to some extent). But the far shallower assertion of everything happening for vague and ill-defined reasons, maybe involved with God but perhaps not (in general usage it’s much more likely to be The Universe, which isn’t terribly helpful), has little to do with that kind of faith. It’s just optimism, of which I am no fan at all.
But the idea of all things being orchestrated toward some purpose is precisely the snare that we’re caught in when we try to make sense of our regrets. The implication behind it is that our lives have a linear narrative. We begin and point A, and we move inexorably, my means we don’t always understand in the moment, toward a meaningful point B. For this to work, we’re required to believe that there is a plan for all this which precedes our participation in it, and that this preexisting plan is revealed to us as move along its arc.
We find this, again, woven into the casual language that our culture uses to talk about life. Along the path of our existence, we are expected to find ourselves. We discover our purpose, and our passions. We learn what we were meant to do. And look, if I’m honest, I say all the same shit. It’s how we talk. The narrative of our lives is represented in terms of uncovering, discovery, revelation. All of it consistent with the idea that the narrative was there before we got to it. This is a cultural constant and breaking from it takes some serious thought.
Where it all gets complicated is when that expectation collides with the hot mess of lived experience. The scenarios should be familiar to us all: we break up with so-and-so. We still harbor feelings for that individual, and for a time, perhaps for years, we experience regret. Then we meet someone else. We fall in love. Now the regret is reconfigured, becoming perhaps a lesson, perhaps an error. Our true path now stands revealed, so have to revise. We have to reconsider whatever we thought we had learned, improvise a new narrative and retrofit it to the past. The past itself doesn’t change, but our orientation to it does. We’re now involved in a project of trying to prove to ourselves that the narrative was always true. We simply erred in our understanding of it, which has now been corrected.
And then it all happens again.
In fairness none of this is terribly problematic when the stakes are low. But the stakes for regret aren’t always low, and the big, hairy, serious regrets, the ones that you really do need to be working through in a very meaningful way, can get confusing, particularly when you’re attuned enough to see your relationship to those regrets changing in real time. The big regrets can carry an urgency that doesn’t always diminish over time, and the task of dealing with them can have an impact on the life you’re really living. There may be real project-level work there, long term work, yet you continue to change. The labor of trying to fit it all into a tidy linear path becomes a tax on the work of really pulling that regret into your sense of self and figuring out what the hell to do about it.
But here’s where I was stuck: flipping around the other way is little help. On the one hand it does fit much more cleanly into my a-teleological world view to accept that the path of my life did not, in fact, exist before I created it. Mine is not the march of history. Mine is the march of Paul, and it has been a meandering, Quixotic affair. But at the same time, it’s no help to me (and less help to anyone that I’ve let down along the way) to go full-on deconstructionist and say that, because of this, there are simply no conclusions to be drawn. I want to remedy my assholery where I can, and justify it where I should. Without ground to stand on, that’s difficult to do.
Enter the theologian, the pub, and the regrettable french dip. As my friend has a formidable reputation to protect we’ll simply call him the Doctor. But the thing to know about the Doctor is that he’s an actual philosopher, which I am not. He’s got the credentials, he’s done the work, and he’s an accomplished bareknuckle brawler in the great, academic cage match of philosophical debate. He’s also my friend, and though I imagine that the field of our disagreements is wide, we agree on a great deal. But our exchange at the pub made for a neat summation of the gulf that lies between his learning and mine, because it took him about four seconds to offer a way out of my regret conundrum.
What he suggested, and I quickly wrote down, was that any given regret can be considered through both a metaphysical and ethical lens. Which is to say, it’s one thing to consider what regret is, or the nature of a given regret and whether it’s a regret at all. That’s fine and useful, and yes, the answers will change as you do. But it’s something else entirely to consider the moral nature of a regret. That will change far less. It really shouldn’t be changing any faster than your own ethics do, which is a separate point.
And he’s right. That’s what I was looking for. It allows for method, in that teasing out the ethical component of our regrets for separate consideration is both possible and wise. Given everything discussed above, it may the part of regret that matters most. If our regrets are going to guide us, it sort of has to be.
So the french dip was bad. I mean it was an okay piece of beef, but it was stranded on this dry baguette and accompanied by a sauce that was something, but was definitely not au jus. You will point out, rightly, that this is what I get for ordering a french dip in an Irish pub. You’re right, and I regret this. But there is no ethical component to that regret. There’s an ethical component to the sins of the cook, but they are not my sins. I can take a lesson from the experience not to order nominally French sandwiches in Irish pubs. If I end up by some strange chance doing so again and wind up having a really great french dip in some future pub then I’ll have to reconsider, but that won’t matter very much. That’s exactly as much thought as I’m ever going to give this. I’ve already given it far more thought than it deserves, but I can also know that. The ethical yardstick helps me do so.
God, the sandwich thing’s pretty twee too. Honestly the whole post kind of came out like that. Can I do a post about ethics without twee and facile illustrations? And yet, is forced edginess actually better when I’m getting the thoughts in place without it? Stay tuned.