I heard a snippet of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regette rien!” on the radio as I was driving home the other day. Boy, it steers about as close to kitsch as a song can steer while remaining on two wheels, and of course by the time we get to Piaf’s final “Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi,” or “all my joys begin today, with you” you can feel your heart bursting with courage. It was written for her in the 1950’s, at a time when she was up and down with drugs and fame and men, and song seemed to be a perfect metaphor for her life, as well as, it seems, the valor of the French Foreign Legion fighting in Algeria and a lot of other things the song has been associated with over the years.
And wouldn’t it be great, to regret nothing? To look back at all the smouldering car wrecks of one’s life and think: “Oh well, so be it. It was all for the best. I’d do it all over again, exactly the same way because that’s just the kind of person I am.”
In truth, when a patient comes in and starts talking about how they regret nothing I get pretty worried. There’s a not-so-fancy word for this in psychotherapy and it is “denial.” It is quite remarkable, the forms this can take. At times, it is merely a posture, a kind of “what the hell” that masks a lot of pain. At other times, it there is a genuine split going on, a disconnect between an event, a remembered relationship perhaps, and a tangle of ambivalent feelings that float loosely around in the subconscious mind and have a way of popping back into our lives in other forms.
I have one patient who keeps telling me: “I should just start from scratch.” It’s like something out of a Beckett play. We’ll talk for awhile about his divorce and his (genuinely) abusive parents and he’ll stop and say: “I should just start from scratch.”
“Try,” I say in response. “Try starting from scratch.”
You can’t really. Go live on an island and your mind will be filled with the chatter of old arguments, unfinished business, fantasies of revenge, and regrets. Unless you are a very good meditator and let’s just admit that few of us are really good meditators.
So, if it’s impossible to “regret nothing” then how do we ever make peace with the past.
I was thinking about this, thinking about the Piaf posture and how seductive it is, and thinking about another patient that I used to see who was trying to extricate himself from a bad marriage. His partner had multiple affairs, and children as a result. You would think that would be enough, but my patient kept getting dragged back into the drama. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t let go, and while I could empathize with his attachment, I couldn’t see the root of it either. Finally it dawned on me. He was a good guy. Raised religious. Raised to turn the other cheek. Raised to put others before himself. What I could finally see was that he couldn’t let go because if he let go then he’d have to admit to himself that — at least as far as this relationship was concerned — he wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t the savior. He wasn’t the fixer. In effect, though he was one of the most self-effacing persons you could imagine, his pride was in the way.
Once we figured that out, what followed was the painful process of admitting that this time around, he was going to have to accept defeat. He was going to have to live with regrets.
And once he understood and allowed himself to be a man with failings, a man with regrets, he was able to feel the pain of rejection, feel the anger, and find the fuel to pull himself out of the burning wreckage and get on with his life, a life with regrets.