Writings by Cole Huffman

To Regret or Not to Regret

To make a regret, take a pound of mistaken notions. Thaw at room temperature then season to taste. Bake on high heat. Remove the dish without oven mitts. Get treatment for your burns.

If revenge is the dish best served cold, regret is the experience of feeling you burned yourself but didn’t have to.

Tattoo mistakes become Internet memes, and one is particularly karmic: “NO REGERTS” etched on some hapless forearm. Regret is an inky thing in its own way, indelible to memory. It’s what Paul Harvey was getting at when he observed that life has a way of overcharging for foolish decisions.

Whether mistakes become regrets is in large measure due to whether (and what) we learn from our mistakes—that and to what degree we see God orchestrating our lives. In an interview, Phillip Jensen, an Anglican leader in Australia, distinguished between mistakes and regrets: “I don’t think regret is really a Christian characteristic,” he said, “it’s an atheistic characteristic; it’s a Sinatra characteristic [“I Did It My Way”], because he lived for himself. But if you live for God, and God is the sovereign God who cares for us, loves us, forgives us, pardons us, then we move on, forgetting what is in the past. I press on to the goal of the future, so I don’t live in regret, and I don’t think we should…. I’ve made lots of mistakes. But I don’t regret mistakes. I say sorry, I ask for forgiveness, I fix what can be fixed, and I move on. I try to learn from mistakes, but I don’t live in regret about them.”

It’s the mistakes that don’t seem fixable that curdle to regret. Consider the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlett Letter, flagellating himself in despair for his adultery with Hester Prynne. A friend once pointed out that Dimmesdale was so keen to give the people of New England an example he couldn’t give them a Savior. That comes compliments of regret. You get to shoulding all over yourself, as someone memorably put it. Worse, regret can make the mistaken one think he (not just the situation) is irredeemable.

As I get older I have no illusions that I don’t make mistakes. I have the impression my confidence in Jesus is growing, and a byproduct of this is that apologies for my mistakes, while not any easier to make, no longer require such effort. “Grace changes the nature of man,” John Owen wrote, “but nothing changes the nature of sin.” My pride can still flare up, accusing and defending. But tell me I wronged you and I say sorry quicker now, not only because I know I make mistakes, but also because I’ve learned my self-defensiveness won’t make you feel less wronged or me feel better. I’ve won arguments but lost the person.

The human heart is artful—Jeremiah called it deceitful—even in apology. Jesse Jackson really gilded the lily at the 1984 Democratic Convention when making apology for his (multiple) racist comments about Jews: “If in my low moments in word, deed, or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone’s fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head, so limited in its finitude, not to my heart, which is boundless in its love for the entire human family.”

“Please forgive me” would have sufficed without all the folderol. But it’s an interesting move we put on ourselves when we claim our faults are not my truest self. None of us know our errors exhaustively. In Psalm 19, David distinguished between hidden errors and presumptuous sin. There are forced and unforced errors in life as in tennis. A mistake can be considered uncharacteristic of me. But it mischaracterizes things to act like my mistake is somehow not really me. Who else is it then?

Newspaper corrections state they “regret the error,” which is saying too much for simple, factual mistakes. Still, the brevity and specificity of newspaper corrections is instructive to making apologies. On the day I finished this piece, September 7, 2016, The New York Times ran this correction: “A picture caption last Wednesday with the About New York column, about how the bizarre is part of the daily experience on the subway, referred incorrectly to a man who was shown with a snake wrapped around his neck. He was a passenger who allowed a man carrying snakes to drape them on him; he was not ‘the snake guy.’”

Now we can move on. I don’t believe I’ll live to regret never being the snake guy myself. And I make no apologies for denying myself the experience.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:48 PM
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