Things Done, and Things Left Undone

I was eavesdropping on a couple of college kids a few years back. I didn’t hear the entire conversation – it was the tail end. Best I could tell, one kid was confessing to the other that he had done something wrong, or offended a friend. The second kid turned to the first one to reassure him, and offered, No Regrets. 

No Regrets, a phrase in our pop culture that is like a mantra. No Regrets. People express this sentiment at every turn. As in American Idol singer William Hung: “I already gave my best. I have no regrets at all.” 

As in the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur: “For my own part, I abandon the ethics of duty to the Hegelian critique with no regrets.”

As in the model and author, Rita Mero: “I have no regrets in my life. I think that everything happens to you for a reason. The hard times that you go through build character, making you a much stronger person.”

Indeed, Ms. Mero is partly correct, hard times do have the capacity to build character, to make one stronger, but not every challenge builds character, and not every tough time strengthens you.

Ms. Mero is completely wrong when she says, “everything happens for a reason.” I suspect her of clinging to some higher purpose, some overarching plan, behind dramatic events in our lives. The sentiment is sweet but can’t possibly be true. 

What overarching plan can possibly explain evil, like that committed by political regimes against its own citizenry? Pol Pot, the Sudan, or Nazi Germany. ISIS is evil, plain evil. No overarching plan. And what plan explains a husband beating his wife, or a child drowning, or a fire that leaves a family homeless? What about when someone gossips maliciously about you, or when a thief steals your lunch money? 

In fact, many of life’s events are detached from some greater purpose. Some events happen by accident, others by carelessness, and still others by mal intent.  People want explanations, but sometimes there is no good explanation. I broke my shoulder because I fell, and fell hard. The drive for explanation can lead one into narcissistic maze, especially when one person mistakenly believes something bad happened to someone else in order to teach the first person a lesson, or when a person asks what she could have done differently to prevent an unpreventable accident from happening to another. Sometimes bad things do just happen. Yet, my behavior (good or bad) sometimes causes bad things to happen.

Which leads to regrets: missed opportunities, failed dreams, personal sins. The apostle Paul reminds us starkly that, at least when it comes to our own shortcomings, life is full of regret.  All have sinned and fallen short. All are in need of help. Salvation. The Prayer Book Confession of Sin, and indeed the church season of Lent, stand in stark contrast to the cult of No Regrets: Forgive us for that which we have done, and for that which we have left undone.

A full and meaningful life is not a life lived absent regret, but one in which regret plays a key role in restoration – bringing a person closer to God and to others. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent gives you the opportunity to express your regrets, to learn from them, and to create amendment of life. “Amendment of Life.” Maybe our mantra should be that, Amendment of Life, the hope that, like wine, life with grace improves with age. 

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