When Regret is a Good Thing

Williams Shatner, best remembered for his Captain Kirk role in Star Trek, argues that “Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.” This is sound thinking on a practical level—e.g., whether one should have accepted a certain job offer or bought one model of car instead of another. If we could peak into an alternate universe, perhaps our choice was the better one after all. Yet on more than one occasion Shatner has belied his own advice. He once said that he regretted directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the least successful of the original cast films.

More poignant is the fact that after many decades of friendship, Shatner became estranged from co-star Leonard Nimoy. The two failed to reconcile by the time of Nimoy’s death in 2015. Shatner writes that it is “something I will wonder about and regret forever.” Such a  disappointment comes much closer to the idea of moral compunction, as understood by Catholic priest and writer Ronald Knox. In such cases we should rightfully wonder if our conduct was at fault – not to perpetually beat ourselves up about it, but at least to avoid or mitigate such disappointments in the future. Emotions are wasted if they are about things beyond our control; equally, if they fail to result in something constructive. The man who sits in a bar crying about how much he  loves his family, while drinking away his wages, is indulging in maudlin sentimentality. A complete lack of regret, on the other hand, is empty bravado or worse: ruthless arrogance.

In his meditation on the “Our Father,” Knox he says that “our Lord wants us to be constantly remembering our sins, every time we say our prayers. Those apostles of cheap optimism… will commonly tell you that it is useless to waste your time in vain regrets over what you did wrong in the past; you should all be looking ahead and making bright plans for the future. That, you see, is the exact opposite of our Lord’s teaching. He does not want us to be exercised over the future; we are to ask each day for the bread which will be sufficient for that day, no more. He does want us to be exercised over the past; our old sins are to be a continual subject of conversation between us and him. Not that he wants to make us scrupulous or timorous about them….” But, he adds, “we are to be sin-conscious” like Mary Magdalene, who found a much greater joy in life than her former pursuits of  pleasure or vanity could provide (“The Forgiveness of God,” The Pastoral Sermons).

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