Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Regret vs. Sorrow

Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:

"Not to fall into remorse."

That line sounds Pascalian but is not from Pascal. It is my formulation,
and it encapsulates what a holy priest once said during his homily to the
Catholic Answers staff. Do not mistake remorse for sorrow, he admonished.
They are not the same thing. Sorrow is salutary, but remorse is a drag on
the soul. It will drag you into a spiritual pit.

Sorrow is regret for what you have done or failed to do--for having
sinned. The guilt associated with your sin is washed away in confession.
At that point you should put that sin behind you and resolve to move
upward in your spiritual journey.

Remorse, in contrast, is a useless pining for what might have been. "Why
didn't I do this? What if I had done that?" You cannot change the past,
and you cannot know what might have been. If you dwell unhealthily on your
life's might-have-beens, you will make no spiritual progress. In fact, you
will go backwards because remorse paralyzes the soul.

The priest's remarks were brought to my mind as I read Samuel Johnson a
few nights ago. I have been working my way through his "Rambler" essays.
In number 47, written in August 1750, he said this:

"[Remorse] is properly that state of the mind in which our desires are
fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant
wish that something were otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and
harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, which
no endeavours can possibly regain."

In this passage Johnson actually uses the term "sorrow," and I have
substituted in brackets "remorse." So has English usage changed in two and
a half centuries. Back then, "sorrow" had a wider meaning and covered what
we now call "sorrow" and "remorse."

In the next sentence Johnson gives examples:

"Into such anguish many have sunk upon some sudden diminution of their
fortune, an unexpected blast of their reputation, or the loss of children
or of friends."

Perhaps you have been there yourself: If only I had not given my assets to
that incompetent financial advisor! If only I had been alert and not
allowed my name to be besmirched that way! If only I had brought up my
children more diligently, so that they would not now have abandoned me!

Johnson summarizes what happens when people fall into a preoccupation with

"They have suffered all sensibility of pleasure to be destroyed by a
single blow, have given up for ever the hopes of substituting any other
object in the room of that which they lament, resigned their lives to
gloom and despondency, and worn themselves out in unavailing misery."

Remorse does not fix whatever happened in the past. That is bad enough,
but remorse also closes you off to present and future happiness because it
occupies your whole mind. It even closes you off to spiritual advancement.
You do not find examples of anyone achieving sanctity through remorse, but
you find countless examples of people who achieve sanctity through sorrow.

Who has not committed blunders? I could spend all day cataloguing mistakes
I have made--not even sins, just mistakes, innocent errors of choice (or
at least they seemed innocent at the time). Each of those mistakes
transformed my life, as did each of the wise decisions I made.

I spent twelve years practicing law and was grateful to leave that line of
work. It turned out to be something I was not especially suited for, or
perhaps it was not suited to me. I ended up entering a line of work I much
enjoy, one that I imagine I have some facility at.

Were those twelve years wasted? It would be easy enough to say that they
were and to bemoan my having devoted about a sixth of my expected
life-span to a profession I now would not have chosen.

But what would I have chosen in place of law? Not, when I was 26, the
practice of apologetics. That field was not yet in my sight--back then, it
did not exist as a career choice at all--nor was I then equipped to enter
it. (Some will say I was not equipped for it even much later, but we will
not pursue that digression.)

So I could spend my time kicking myself for not having followed Robert
Frost's dictum more assiduously. I could complain that I should have
followed "The Road Not Taken" instead of following everyone else to law
school. (And it did seem like everyone was going there: When I left the
practice, there were 8,000 attorneys in San Diego alone.)

You probably have a past over which you could fall into remorse: the
person you might have married, the career you might have chosen, the place
you might have visited, the comment you might have had the wits not to say
aloud. You can spend your time pining over what might have been, or you
can move ahead. You cannot do both.

"Not to fall into remorse."

If we were archangels instead of men we would not have this temptation.
Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael do not mope around, fussing about
wrong turns taken.

But each of us has made plenty of wrong turns. Some of us have made more
wrong turns than right turns. What matters is where we look: behind or
ahead. Looking behind guarantees that we will stumble off the path.
Looking ahead means we have some prospect of reaching our goal.

Let us be sorrowful over the sins we have committed, grateful for the
forgiveness we have received, and resolved to do better in the future, but
let us not dwell fruitlessly on a past that daily slips further from us.
That is a true waste.

Until next time,


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