The hardest thing in the world to do is to take something back: something that was or wasn’t said or done; something that happened or should have happened. This is the hardest thing in the world to do, because it is impossible. Regret keeps us up well into the night. It rattles our brains, and upsets our stomachs. It distracts from life, and advances death. It is the ultimate anxiety, the perilous “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve,” the nagging thought that everything could be better had we made a different decision.
I live with regret. It’s a fleeting feeling for me. It comes in times when I remember the night my mother died (what if we’d called the ambulance earlier?), or when I relive the sting of my ex’s infidelity (what if I’d left the bar a few minutes earlier the night we met?).
Would the outcomes have changed? Would my mother still be alive? Would I never have known the pain my ex caused?
We toss and turn at night thinking of such things, and though some of you might say you live without regret, you know the feeling.
What makes regret so unbearable isn’t that we regret doing what we did (or didn’t do). What we really regret is the outcome of our action (or inaction), which means sometimes, we regret things we weren’t responsible for.
Translation: We torture ourselves not only with the regret of what we did, but also with the nagging unknown—would the outcome have changed anyway?
The most extreme example to showcase this wicked phenomenon is Dr. William Petit. His story is the ultimate family horror. In 2007, his wife, Jennifer, and daughters, Hayley and Michaela, were brutally massacred in their suburban Connecticut home, victims of a sadistic home invasion.
Hayley was found at the top of the stairs. She’d been tied to her bed, raped, and soaked with gasoline before she was set aflame. She’d managed to escape her binds, but the fire proved fatal, and her struggle to freedom ended just outside her bedroom. She was 17. Jennifer and Michaela suffered similar fates.
Bill, on the other hand, survived. Left for dead by Steven Hayes and Josh Komisarjevsky, he lost seven pints of blood after being struck with a baseball bat, and restrained in his basement. He managed to free himself, and make it to a neighbor’s house.
Bill lives with regret. Any father would, I suppose. He, the protector, the provider, was unable to save his family. What more could he have done? What if they’d been on vacation that night? What if…?
So many questions, so many scenarios playing over and over again. The nagging unknown. The outcome…the horrifying outcome.
The truth, of course, is that it wasn’t in Bill’s power to change what was going to happen. But that doesn’t matter. Regret shows no sign of rationality.
Steven will die for his involvement in the Petit family murders. Josh’s trial starts this year. Little solace for Bill. Anguish, not justice, is his companion.
During the trial, the tables turn somewhat. Jurors and the media look to the defendants for signs of another kind of regret: remorse.
This intrigues me. Do the killers feel regret? Yes, probably—for getting caught. Remorse—now there’s a interesting subject. It is perhaps the ultimate punishment. As I see it, remorse is the self-inflicted torture by a person for affecting another the way he did. Unlike the irrationality of Bill’s regret, regret in the form of remorse is absolutely appropriate.
I suppose if you take anything from this, it’s that when you are alone at night, trying to overcome that queasy guilt in the pit of your stomach, think about where it’s coming from: a place of illogical self-blame, or true remorse.
If what you feel is guilt over an outcome you may or may not have influenced, think of Bill Petit: the man who keeps going. It is within all of us to overcome. It just takes courage—and inspiration.
We all have these instances in our lives: times that can kill us or strengthen us. They seem to pale in comparison with the Petit heartbreak, but they are real for us nonetheless. When faced with them, let us choose to rise.
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