Transforming Regrets


My lifelong-learning French course (which a late friend began more than thirty years ago) is now run like an ongoing book group conducted in French. This week was my turn to lead the class—a daunting prospect because of my miscellaneous insecurities and deficiencies. Some in the class are native French speakers; many of the others are retired French teachers or lived in France for an extended time. I merely studied some French in high school and college, lived for a year and a half in a dorm where we were supposed to speak French all of the time, and spent three miraculous weeks in France in January 1972.

But I prepared carefully for Monday’s class, and my classmates were kind and encouraging, so I survived and even enjoyed the experience. We were talking about the last four chapters of Philippe Claudel’s novel Quelques-uns des cent regrets[1] (Some of My One Hundred Regrets), which prompted lively discussion. In the novel, the narrator describes his return to his childhood town for the funeral and burial of his mother, with whom he has been estranged for half of his thirty-two years. The short novel (154 pages) is not available in English. Its vivid scenes and characters—including some elements reminiscent of magic realism—account for both the book’s difficulty for non-native French speakers and its power. Quelques-uns des cent regrets is well worth the effort if you have a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.

The title comes from a parable-like story that the hotel owner in the novel tells the narrator: Human regrets are like the pearls that oysters create, treasures “qui possèdent le souvenir, la mémoire de la blessure”—“that possess the recollection, the memory of the injury.”[2]  Each person, according to the legend, is allotted one-hundred regrets in a lifetime. Each regret is written into a magnificent illuminated book called The Book of Debts. Shortly after a person’s one-hundredth regret has been written in the book, the person dies.[3]

Catching of Pearls, Bern Physiologus (9th century illuminated manuscript), by unknown, public domain

Making Meaning Out of My Entries in The Book of Debts

I imagine that I have company—billions of companions—in struggling with guilt, with how to move from inundating guilt to regrets transformed into meaningful memories. And so I have asked my higher self and guides for their advice. Here is the response (which I’ve also included in my book A Woman in Time):

Making mistakes to learn from is part of the point of it all. As you know, of course, you can’t change the past, but if you look back, you will see that you made your mistakes out of a lack of understanding, knowledge, and insight, not from a desire to hurt or harm others. As you have grown in wisdom, you have made better choices. You have more to learn, more to grow, but that is why you are on Earth: to learn and to grow. If you allow the past to weigh you down, you will restrict the potential inherent in the present and future. Some of the wisdom you have now grew out of your errors and mistakes. Such is the way of life on Earth. If you were perfect, you would not be here.

See the attitudes that misled—and mislead—you. Because of things that happened to you in school and your lack of understanding at the time, you grew to believe that even small faults or infractions make you unacceptable to others. You thought—and to a degree still believe—that some inherent flaw in you meant you had to be even more careful of slipping up than others needed to be. Others could make mistakes and do or say wrong things and still be acceptable, but you had to be pretty much perfect even to have a chance of being accepted. And to an extent—too great an extent—you still feel that way. Even though you have close friends, you fear you are one gaffe away from having them throw you overboard.

Because they loved you—and love you—your parents disliked your reflex of saying “I’m sorry,” but you even now continue to fear and act as if failing to sprinkle the magic powder of “sorry” over what feel to you like your slipups and transgressions will mean the loss of the possibility of forgiveness and continued inclusion by those you want to please and whose company you value.

Your attitudes have brought you great suffering and pressure and have contributed, to a large measure, to the hurt and harm you have inflicted on others, especially your dearest ones. It is hard to live under such pressure to be perfect as you have endured and not have negative symptoms appear from the strain. And the irony is, of course, that your behavior was anything but perfect as a result. But it and you were and are very human, as are all people on this Earth: getting along as you can, given your level of insight and experience.

Black pearl on oyster shell, by Brocken Inaglory – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Creating Pearls Out of Pain

About some things you know better now. As hard as it is to change ingrained conditioning, it can be done, and you can do it. But if you allow yourself to live in regret, you will never become the whole, mature, compassionate, confident, loving, creative person you wish to be. You gave up smoking and other destructive behaviors; you can also give up thinking you have to be perfect to find even the hope of approval by others. And you can learn to release regret, letting the sad thoughts float through your mind and out again without anchoring there.

You want to make up for all the causes for regret in your life, and while doing so per se is impossible, you will make up for your past lack of wisdom by moving forward buoyed by what the years have taught you. Find missing courage and be yourself, doing the best you can but not beating yourself when you stumble. You will stumble less if you refuse to see yourself as less than others, refuse to look down on yourself, mourn what is lost without wallowing in guilt and fear, and celebrate what your errors and unhappiness have taught you. The way to find your way is to be, knowing that life is about becoming, not about figuring it all out at the start.

When you make a mistake, consider the lesson and move on. Keep going. Hold your head high. Have compassion for yourself, as well as for others. Expect yourself to be a good human being, not a perfect being.

Those you love will be cheering you on, are cheering you now. They are not counting your flaws and failures; they are celebrating your courage and your victories.

[1] Philippe Claudel, Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Paris : Éditions Stock, 2007).

[2] Quelques-uns des cent regrets, 152.

[3] Quelques-uns des cent regrets, 152-3.