Let’s distinguish between regret over an action versus remorse about an action:

  • Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors
  • Remorse is an emotional expression of personal regret felt by a person after he or she has committed an act which they deem to be shameful, hurtful, or violent.

Every so often there’s a “top regrets of the elderly/dying” sort of piece that makes the rounds. These are heavy pieces, but they’re usually vague. What sort of specific regrets do people have? they wish they had “let themselves be happier,” or “expressed their feelings” more often.

These sorts of things are hopeless as signposts for improvement among the living. Why? They’re sentiments, not insights. They’re generalities, not specific points of remorse due to specific actions or missed opportunities.

Look at those definitions again. You end up with “regret” over banalities: Not partying more in college. Not hitting the gym more often. Hooking up with the wrong person. Eating too much. Seeing a bad movie. These are regrets, but because they’re also generalities we’re unlikely to be things we’re really remorseful about, because what would be the point? (Regret sometimes hangs out with its cousins, false nostalgia and romanticism.)

When we’re asked about “things you regret,” I think the real question is often “What are things you feel remorse over?” We have minor “negative emotion reactions” all the time. We sometimes face tragedies over which it’s worth feeling remorse, like missing the birth of a child, or being cruel in a friend’s final moments, or getting passionately or violently physical with someone you love. It’s worth feeling remorse over corrosive aspects of our personalities that lead to specific misdeeds for which we can atone. It’s probably not worth feeling regret over the thousand small incidents of negative emotions that flood our daily experiences. I suppose that’s the sort of distinction I’m trying to draw out here: you might regret something, but it’s the things you’re really remorseful about that you’re most likely to feel the need to really make amends for.

(And carrying remorse with you, that accumulated weight of anger, fear, self-pity, and emotionalism, makes the Christian duty to live with joy really impossible. Confession allows an unburdening and a way to obtain specific forgiveness for specific wrongs.)

I care much more about learning what you’re specifically remorseful over than the fluffy and sentiments we have come to call regrets. Remorse describes those things we genuinely hurt over, and until we can speak about them to one another we likely can’t heal or really make a change.

So let’s ask each other about what we’re remorseful about, rather than what we regret. The answers will probably be better.