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Noah 5783 - The Power of Regret

October 29, 2023 - 4 Heshvan, 5783

Brene Brown writes in her book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience:

While some people disagree with me, I firmly believe that regret is one of our most powerful emotional reminders that reflection, change, and growth are necessary. In our research, regret emerged as a function of empathy. And, when used constructively, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.

The idea that regret is a fair but tough teacher can really piss people off. “No regrets” has become synonymous with daring and adventure, but I disagree. The idea of “no regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret is to believe we have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with our lives.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, God looks at God’s creation with regret and sadness:

 וינחם ה׳ כי עשה את האדם בארץ ויתעצב אל לבו

And Adonai regretted that God had made the human being on the earth, and God was saddened to God’s heart and mind (Genesis 6:6).

Even God practices regret; even God makes decisions based on that gut-wrenching feeling that God has done something wrong. Because of God’s regret, God enacts the great flood, destroying all but the number of humans and animals necessary to repopulate the world. After the flood, God establishes a new, two-way covenantal system, reshaping the role of human beings within their social natural worlds. As beings made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, we, too, have the responsibility to open ourselves to empathetic regret, to recognize and act on that knowledge that we have missed the mark.

For Brene Brown, regret is defined as “when an outcome was not what we wanted, counted on, or thought would happen” and “we believe the outcome was caused by our decisions and actions.” Regret involves both disappointment and ownership. Each time we feel regret, we must look at those emotions and ask two questions - Am I truly disappointed? And - is this outcome my own doing? What we feel as disappointment may be a guise for fear, surprise, or even misguided excitement. Often, we blame ourselves for situations or outcomes that are out of our control. And yet, when an outcome truly hurts us and others, and when we could have done something to change that outcome, the power of regret comes into play.

When we regret, our physical body asks us to focus on what is frustrating or negative about the outcome we see. Whom does this outcome affect - just me or others in my presence, too? What outcome would have been more beneficial for all those affected? So, too, when we regret, our body asks us to consider what we could have done to achieve a more positive outcome. By focusing on our decisions, actions, and their outcomes, we can move on to integrating our new knowledge into future thoughts, words, and deeds. 

When I regret sharing information I had no right to share, and the person whose information I shared becomes angry with me, I learn better to pause before I speak in the future. I pause because I know that the outcome I desire is a more trusting relationship with those I love and respect. 

Beyond using regret towards learning what to do in the future, regret empowers us to look for new ways to improve the present situation. Just as God changes God’s present situation by enacting the flood, we can change policies at work, apologize to those we have hurt, or ask for help to fix or abate outcomes that have already come to pass. By embracing our regret, we not only acknowledge our imperfection; we acknowledge our ability to move forward, even with that imperfection.

As the land dries out, God establishes a rainbow in the sky as a visual reminder to us and to Godself that God will never again destroy the world. At the same time, the rainbow reminds God and us that we now hold greater responsibility for our own well-being; as much as God can guide us with God’s wisdom, God will not protect us from our own moral failings. For the medieval commentator Ramban, the downwards shape of the bow represents God setting God’s bow in a position unable to shoot, like a warrior laying his weapon down and declaring peace. Perhaps God not only learns from God’s regret for creating humankind in the particular world structure that God does, but also, regret for having nearly destroyed all living beings afterwards. Just as God looks at the rainbow as a sign to Godself, we too, can look at the rainbow as a sign of the power of empathetic regret. When we see a rainbow, we see a sign for hope in ourselves, hope that we can increasingly learn from our actions and their outcomes, even when our attempts at changing ourselves and our outcomes does not work out the first time. When we see a rainbow, we see a visual sign to remind ourselves of responsibility for the consequences of our decisions and for what comes after each and every one of those consequences.


Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784