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Monday, November 29, 2004

In Marilynne Robinson's new novel Gilead, the 77-year-old Rev. John Ames says:

Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.

He also asks himself:

"What to do with all the frustration and regret that builds up in this life?"

Perhaps there are people who become 77 who wouldn't understand this question. Not many, though.

I suppose it's around age 40 that people have more of a sense of the shape of their lives, and it becomes clearer to them the way in which earlier choices have changed the course of their lives.

Regrets range from the wistful..."I wish I'd gone on to get a master's", "I wish I'd kept better track of my high school and college friends"...to the more action-provoking, "I wish I hadn't spent the last 20 years in an alcoholic stupor" or "I wish I hadn't married this person."

Over the weekend, I read a young woman who wrote of her abortion decision that she absolutely does not regret it because she was confident that it was the best possible choice she could have made at that time.

When I run across the occasional comment to that effect, I wonder about a few things.

I wonder about why this young woman--and most others who write in this vein--gives a reason for her lack of regret, instead of just reporting her lack of regret. Why does a justifying comment ("it was the best choice I could make at the time") get brought in to buttress what could have been a simple, short report about the state of her emotions--namely, the lack of a feeling of regret with respect to that action?

To whom is she justifying her decision?

The other thing I wonder about is the complicated interplay between the emotion of regret and our justifications or lack of justifications for earlier choices. There are choices I've made that I can't justify, and that were poor choices, but that I can't honestly say I regret--in the sense of feeling that particular uncomfortable feeling of wistful or remorseful regret. I perhaps think to myself that I should regret a particular thing I did, but I can't say I experience that particular painful emotion when I reflect on it.

And on the other hand, there are choices I regret, with a painful degree of regret, where I try to talk myself out of feeling that way by offering up reasons to myself why I shouldn't feel this way. I offer justifications to myself, most prominently, "Emily, what you did that day was the best you could do at the time," to try to reduce the pain of regret. What I've found is that this particular line of justification does very little to reduce the actual painful emotion of regret.

Perhaps, for this young woman and others like her, when her head ("it was the best choice at the time") talks to her heart, her heart willingly obliges.

I wonder what this young woman would think of Rev. John Ames and his question, "What to do with all the frustration and regret that builds up in this life?" I imagine that in her 20s and 30s, she would look at him with pity and incomprehension, and vow not to sit around in her 70s wallowing in the past.

What happens between our determined-never-to-regret-a-thing youth and our 70s, that makes us eventually able to understand and admire Rev. John Ames for being able to live with this question?

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