“Regrets. I had a few, but too few to mention”.
Those simple words so eloquently sang by Frank Sinatra in his classic hit “My Way” have, for some unknown reason, echoed in my brain for as long as I can remember. I often speak to patients about regret as the “shoulda, coulda, wouldas” or the “I wish” followed by the “I will” phrases. Call it what you will, regret plays a very integral part in how we perceive ourselves as people. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I should have bought that suit”, “I wish I was 17 again because I wouldn’t make those stupid mistakes”, “I I only invested my money wisely instead of buying stock in Enron”? Of course you have. We all do. It’s as natural as thinking about what you would like for dinner. What regret does to us emotionally is a whole different state of affairs and the reason for this blog.
A very good friend of mine once brought up the subject of guilt during a luncheon discussion. During the conversation, he stated, “Guilt and regret are two entirely different beasts”. I was intrigued as to where the conversation may go and to what point he may be trying to make. My friend originally hails from Manhattan and still has a very slight, but pronounced accent. He is also Jewish where I am Italian Catholic. Our conversations typically cover the “Do Not Discuss” topics, but we tend to always have the absolute best conversations. “Denny, my friend”. Before I continue I have to add a little something about this name he calls me. My father was always called Denny and I was always called Dennis. Don’t know why, but it had evolved that way. When my son was born, family and friends started calling him Little Denny and my Father Big Denny. I remained Dennis. There have only been two people in the world who have steadily and without fail called me Denny. One is my favorite great uncle and the other is my friend. I always know my friend is ready to say something profound when he starts his sentence with “Denny, my friend”. I apologize for the slight digression from the point of the conversation. “Denny, my friend” he says with a slight twinkle in his eye and smirk on his face, “Us Jewish people have the corner on guilt”. “How so?” I immediately shot back with a raised eyebrow. “We are born into guilt!” He leaned back into his chair at lunch almost taunting me for a speedy retort. “Come on now” I started. “Us Italian Catholics have the corner on guilt!” “How so?” he replied. Please allow me to digress one more time. Apparently, I get a devilish grin when I am about to win a conversation. Friends and family have both stated I get this look of victory. I don’t see it but apparently it’s there. “Us Italian Catholics are conceived in guilt”. His jaw dropped and then we both let out a loud belly laugh. After a good ten minutes of laughter he stopped and said, “Yes, but neither of our people have the corner on regret. No people do!”
The very definition of regret is to feel sorry and sad about something previously done or said that now appears wrong, mistaken, or hurtful to others. So regret had to be a matter of perception before it makes its way in to the dark recesses of our brains and hearts? Wouldn’t that stand to reason? I don’t know about all of that just quite yet. If something is never pointed out to us as being wrong, we never perceive it as wrong. Let me explain by saying a little something about my daughter. My daughter is a beautiful red head who lives up to the fiery personality traits of all red heads. She tries to win debates and arguments by merely rolling her baby blues at you and stealing your heart. With this said, she is also a free spirit to the core. As a good father, I almost never say no to this child. So, when it came time to the question of, “Daddy, may I have a hamster?” I couldn’t say no to her. Besides, I set up an aquarium for her and she has kept the fish alive so I figured why not. A hamster would make a great starter pet for my baby girl. Well, Hammy, yes the hamster was named Hammy, didn’t have a good run of things. He, I’m only assuming he was a he, was on a mission of self destruction. He would eat his way out the cage, jump out of the daughter’s hand, bite into electrical cords, if there was crack for hamsters, Hammy probably would have smoked it. So, Hammy died. The daughter left the cage open one night and the crack addict hamster got out and bit into an electrical cord. I was heat broken for her. This was her first hamster and it died. I also realized she was partially to blame for Hammy’s demise because she left the cage open. I sat my daughter down to tell her the news. I mustered all the strength I could and said, “Baby, I have some very bad news. It seems as if the cage was left open last night and Hammy got out. I found him this morning and he was not breathing. It looked as if he died from biting into an electrical cord. I wish there was something I could have done to help him, but it was just too late. I’m so very sorry. I know this must hurt something terrible, I’m hoping some big Daddy hugs might help you to feel better.” I thought I did well. I think I even teared up a tad. The daughter looked at my with those big blue eyes and said, “It’s ok, Hammy was a brat. Can we get a new one? I want to name it Nibbles.” She showed not one once of regret for leaving the cage open. To her, she had nothing to feel sorry about. To her, Hammy was a brat and good riddance to him. Obviously, I do not intend for her to grow up with no sense of humility and compassion, but regret is very personal and individualistic.
I am certain we can make people feel bad for the things they have done, but regret does not apply to everyone. For example, before he was put to death, a Psychiatrist asked Ted Bundy if he regretted killing any of the women he brutally murdered. Bundy said the only thing I regret is getting caught. The only thing he regretted was getting caught?!? Wow! We all know murdering someone is wrong, correct? We all know murdering hundreds of people is wrong, correct? Well, for Mr. Bundy, those laws of morality just don’t apply. This is where our regret becomes our regret. We have to respect each other when it comes to what another person regrets in their life. If they don’t view something as regret, I would presume we can’t make them regret it. If they do regret something, I think it is our responsibility to help them through it.