Magazine article The Christian Century

Regretfully Yours: Leaving Perfection to God

Magazine article The Christian Century

Regretfully Yours: Leaving Perfection to God

Article excerpt

MY WIFE, A TEACHER of philosophy at a Catholic university, likes to begin introductory ethics courses with a hypothetical question. If you were to live to be 80, what would you like to be able to say about yourself? Her students, who are mostly Catholics and Lutherans--and often practicing ones--sometimes impress her with sensitive responses about virtue and character. But in the last few years she has noticed that more and more of them answer that they want to be able to say that they have no regrets, that they wouldn't do anything differently. The avoidance of moral regret seems to be their life goal. She's been surprised at how often this answer has come up. It bothers her and has long bothered me, because unfortunately it's not limited to callow freshmen.

A short time after my wife mentioned this pattern I went to the funeral of a woman who had died from a degenerative disease in her late 30s. She had married shortly after her diagnosis and had moved to a city far from her family. Her husband had proclaimed his love and his readiness to care for her, but he failed in his duties and essentially abandoned her, then obstructed her family's attempts to secure better care for her. Through the help of some good lawyers, family members were able to obtain a divorce so that they could bring her back home. Never having nursed a dying wife, I have no interest in passing judgment on the young man. I hope that I would react differently, but when I think about the situation I hear the words of St. Paul, "He who thinks he stands, let him take heed lest he fall." What struck me was the attitude of the young man at the funeral.

While it would have been understandable had his wife's family asked him to stay away, they graciously asked if he wished to give a eulogy after the funeral. This act of Christian charity and forbearance was repaid when the young man began his recollection of his wife with the line, delivered in a staccato that sounded like a challenge: "No regrets." After his brief recollection of his wife he concluded, repeating twice more, "No regrets. No regrets." Who was he trying to convince?

In a recent issue of AARP, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, octogenarian actor Sidney Poitier was asked, "Do you have regrets--is it even okay to have them?"

It was refreshing to see a philosophical question of this sort asked in the relentlessly peppy journal for the over-50 crowd. The idee fixe of the magazine and those like it seems to be to encourage those whose flesh is showing signs of decay to put their trust even more heavily into that flesh, and to be ever more satisfied and complacent with their lives and wrapped enough in physical comforts to avoid regret or guilt. Unfortunately, Poitier's answer fit comfortably into this philosophy:

   Ah, it depends upon your philosophical point of view, how
   you see life. I don't. I have none. I have behaved in despicable
   ways, and I recall them. I don't regret them. That came
   out of an understanding that I arrived at much, much later
   in my life--that there is not one choice I made, not one, that
   I would change. Because then my life would have led to
   somewhere else.

Poitier clearly thinks the question has to do with moral regret. His answer is that he has ended up well. The ends apparently justify the means, no matter how "despicable" those means were.

Poitier's defense, though stated in a secular fashion, has its own sacred terminology. "God writes straight with crooked lines." I've heard this expression attributed to a number of people, from Paul Claudel to St. Augustine. It's a perfectly orthodox belief and has a very nice pedigree. God in his mercy does not merely let us suffer the consequences of our sins, but often makes them the occasion of giving us great good. We can see this in Genesis when Jacob's son Joseph, having been sold into slavery by his brothers, reveals to them what has happened. …

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