What is the use of regret? Dostoevsky wrote that it is impossible to apologise without boasting or making a power-grab. When the super-ego becomes a mad dog, we lose faith in ourselves and in our ability to mend our ways.
I went to the gender clinic, and it was so horrible the shock took some time to be conscious in me. I could not go to work the following day, and a woman’s tribunal went ahead without me. Possibly she would have lost anyway. I feel guilt about that, and about settling a case for far too little then seeing the wonderful argument I could have made, later. And I forgive myself. It is pointless guilt: I am not superhuman, I need to self-protect when hurt, I have my level of intelligence and make the connections when I make them.
I have felt real rage and pain about that paltry settlement, possibly about the opponent taking advantage of me, felt as shame at my inadequacy. Possibly I could have spent more time on the case, earlier. I had a particular level of energy; I was not working in a systematic way, overwhelmed by demands on me and my feelings about them. It was a painful situation, and now I avoid such a painful situation by hiding. I have learned something from my painful situation then; but my beating myself up about it- I am not Perfect-me– has stopped me from learning more from it. The world is safe enough, even though I am not perfect me. Setbacks are not the end of the world, even though they feel that way.
Gordon Marino, teacher of ethics, writes non-specifically of his “weak and selfish moment” which suddenly popped into his mind as he lay waiting for sleep. O, teacher of ethics, how can you have any moral confidence in yourself after that? That is not how I experience it. I look at my past, feel again my terror that I am not perfect, forgive myself with “nobody’s perfect”, feel the same horror so cannot know whether any of my acts or omissions was wicked, or unavoidable.
Chris Latham, teacher of African-American studies and philosophy, writes of white privilege, The laws of the universe are experienced without friction for white Americans because a willful denial of the past leaves them with no sense that their present is insecure or that their future is in question. It will always be O.K. in exactly one minute, day, or year from now. But this is not many blacks’ experience of time. I have that fear. It could be to do with being trans, but more I feel it comes from my childhood and family, so it concerns threats which no longer operate. Part of my task is to let go of the fear and the self-protection mechanisms which worked against the threat I felt then, but hold me back now. Regretting them does no good, because it fails to understand why I do them; celebrating them as past solutions helps me understand and might help me let go.
Nietzsche called remorse adding to the first act of stupidity a second. My desires are conflicted. I want something but cannot admit that to myself. I do something to achieve it, which other parts of me judge as stupid and destructive. My remorse carries on my conflict; I may resolve it. Or, I do something stupid, and remorse makes me resolve to avoid such acts in future. I suffer pain, and heal. I respond emotionally to events, rather than acting on reason. Reason can create long term plans, but not efface emotions. Discipline, not reason, prevents impulsive acts, and my emotion may chafe under too heavy discipline, demotivating me.
Regret of a bad act may motivate useful change.