Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
Regret and Remorse
In the sticky heat of a midsummer day, when I am around six years old, I sit at the counter of a smoky bar. The walls are brown and the room is gloomy and the air is stagnant and most of the lunchtime crowd has left. Propped on a stool, my legs swinging, the bar is a bit too high, but I hold myself up by my elbows while the adults wait for my decision.
There’s no context for this memory, and these few seconds are all that I possess. Not only have I forgotten the lunch, but I doubt that I remember much else from that month. Although that doesn’t seem too unusual, as memories often linger as mere fragments, as almost dreamlike images, without any sense of beginning or ending to frame the context. What’s frequently remembered, it seems to me, are the hinge events, or the moments of chance, that somehow seem profound in later years. And those are always retrospective decisions—the narrative that I tell to explain my past adjusts based on what I find salient in the present.
For this memory, still imprinted so many years later, my father and his colleague are on adjacent stools, while the bartender stands before me with an unhurried smile. She’s about forty in my six-year-old mind, which means that she must have been about twenty. We’ve finished lunch, the plates are gone, and I have somehow been given a scratch-off lottery ticket—in violation, I should add, of New York State law. But in this Norman Rockwell painting of a memory, where a six year old who can barely reach the counter uses a quarter to furiously scratch off a lottery ticket on a hot afternoon, I win.
If I remember correctly, the prize was one dollar, an amount that was rather suspiciously the same price as the ticket. So six-year-old me had a choice: I could pocket the one dollar prize, or I could, as it was explained to me, use my new dollar to buy a new ticket. I hadn’t paid for the first ticket but the cost of the second ticket would come from money that was now mine. And perhaps the experience of three adults watching me—bemused, curious, unsure—is what triggered the imprinting of this memory. Should I take a chance on a bigger win? Should I pocket the dollar already in my hand? Looking back today, I can understand the curiosity of the adult position, intrigued to see what the child will choose; and I can also remember how in that exact moment I felt the attention of those adult eyes, the awareness that I was in the unusual position of having the adults both interested in and uncertain about what I’ll do next—which is probably the sensation that gives this memory its potency.
Now I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life, nor have I ever really gambled, and this first decision to keep my new dollar doesn’t impinge on that record. I certainly couldn’t have explained that decision with any coherence at the time, as it was, I believe, more instinctive than deliberate, and based on my suspicion that the potential for loss seemed greater and more painful than the potential for gain.
Perhaps—if I grant my younger self just a bit of cleverness—I also had the slightest inclination toward sensing a distinction between regret and remorse, and felt some inchoate, elusive intuition that I must choose one. Without even knowing those words, I might have sensed the asymmetry in the risks of my choice, one that’s present in the concepts underneath the words. Most people do use these words interchangeably, but there was once a sharper distinction that has unfortunately slipped away: Regret was reserved for negative feelings about an action that you didn’t do; remorse was reserved for negative feelings about an action that you did. So you can regret not studying for your literature class, but you will have remorse about your poor performance on your literature test. And this is a nuance that’s worth keeping in mind whenever you’re primed to make a choice—with not acting just as much an active choice as its alternative.
There's no reason to be didactic about the language, to expect or even want the language to remain stagnant, but some distinctions are useful to uphold. Whenever a precise word is lost, the ability to articulate a precise concept becomes more difficult. And you don't have to squint to notice that these words touch questions that are fundamental to life—questions that are particularly notable during those hinge moments, in those moments when coincidence and opportunity and choice appear to collide. Obviously the dollar that my six-year-old self kept rather than lost or doubled isn't an example of a hinge moment, where a different choice foretells a vastly different future. There’s no dramatic, vital reason why this memory has stuck with me, though it was when I became aware, I believe, that I could choose between, but never reduce, risks.
If I were to make a grand and slightly unjustified claim about risk, I would say that most people prefer to have a pile of regrets rather than a list of actions that make them feel remorse. Intriguingly, this isn't necessarily what people would claim, even though it does seem that there's a slight bias toward inaction, hesitation, delay, as opposed to putting the risk on the unknown chance. And perhaps this was a perfectly rational bias for most of history. You must always choose, and there's no second chance once the lion chomps, against the river’s current, with the poisonous plant. Unforgiving conditions almost certainly predispose you toward extra care. And having an excess of regrets is probably best in harsh and primitive environments. Refining our nervous system over thousands of years to calculate and fear those irreparable risks probably does make us more reluctant to step forward today, even when the dangers, in general, are more abstract and diffuse. Which means that there’s a visceral understanding of consequences, of the potential for remorse, but the same insight doesn't seem to arise when it comes to the risks of regret. My sense is that people significantly underestimate the cost of what they don't do: the chances they forgo, the letters they don't write, the trains they don't take.
Over a long enough period, most people do permit themselves a bit of forgiveness for past mistakes. Even the most dreadful errors can be justified, or simply accepted, ushering in a sense of tranquility. But in nearly all of the stories that I've heard about loss, heartbreak, tragedy, mistake, in nearly all the tales of anguish and shame and bitterness that I've been told, there's a familiar, but quite subtle, refrain: a focus on inaction. Remorse for a past error is rationalized or resolved or even forgotten; regret about the action not taken is what seems to linger.
What appears unendurable are those memories of idleness, drift, the times of passivity. Those memories linger as fragments and shape themselves into narratives—with the most pain coming from what's unspoken, unwritten, unfinished, and unpursued. And if you're able to read this sentence, then biasing your risk toward inaction, to the avoidance of a mistake rather than the making of a mistake, is probably the wrong choice. Besides, there’s no escape, and there's no solution, against the chasm that exists between the risk of your choices: there’s the potential for regret after inaction, and there’s the potential for remorse after wrong action. But this predicament can also be clarifying—it forces you to recognize that you're always choosing.