- Foundation regret (i.e., “If only I’d worked harder, I’d have gotten the promotion;” “If only I’d go to bed on time, I’d wake up on time and have more energy throughout the day.”)
- Boldness regret (i.e., “If only I’d been true to myself;” “If only I’d had the courage to open the business I always dreamed of.”)
- Moral regret (i.e., “If only I hadn’t been so mean;” “If only I hadn’t lied/cheated/stolen.”)
- Connection regret (“If only I’d stayed in touch with my old friend from high school;” “If only I’d spent more time with my grandparents.”)
In fact, only 10% expressed regret for morally wrong actions.
This means people regretted not having worked for promotion, opening their dream business, staying in touch with a high school buddy MORE than they regretted having hurt someone or behaved unethically.
The reason for this isn’t clear, but looking at the society around us, we can see a sharp plummet in moral standards.
An imperfectly religious American society once prized Mishlei and Koheles for their wisdom, even going so far as to name their children after Torah virtues: Charity, Prudence, Modesty, and Patience for girls; and Truth and Reason for boys.
But the general secular society no longer appreciates what are now called “traditional values.”
Just as one example:
So many people see their own hurtful or irresponsible comments, behaviors, and tweets as cute or funny or clever.
Other times, they see their harmful behavior as justified: “Well, this makes me so mad, I just can’t hold back anymore!”
Or even laudatory: “I simply cannot let this pass without commenting on how [negative description] you are. People like you must not be allowed to spread your ignorance. And I’m not afraid to state my truth in a public forum!”
Other examples abound.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read someone discussing their poor treatment of others in the past, and dismissing it as “Well, I was really hurting too, so I was just looking to cover up my pain.”
Or, “Yeah, I did-this-and-such, but oh well. There’s nothing to do about it now. Might as well just go on…keep on working on those middos…”
Or, “It was funny at the time. We didn’t really realize it was a problem.”
In other words, years of hurting or exploiting others are dismissed as a response to feeling oneself victimized or confused by life—without ever feeling the pain of those hurt or exploited.
As long as you have what society considers a “good” reason (“I was a victim myself;” “I wasn’t aware of the effect of my actions on others”), then whatever you did isn’t considered so immoral.
So that’s one reason why people lack moral regrets: They start off with low standards of morality in the first place.
After all, if an act of theft isn’t considered stealing, then you’ll never regret having stolen something because to your mind, you didn’t steal.
But another reason people avoid moral regret is because it is SO PAINFUL.
Facing the "OUCH!" Factor of Moral Regret
But most of us knew that already from our own experience with moral regret.
Judaism focuses on moral regret more than any other type.
After all, Vidui consists of confessing sins of betrayal, dishonest, cheating, treating others disrespectfully…and NOT “for the sin we transgressed before You by not opening our dream business/dating that dream girl/working more hours.”
Yet we live in a society which not only denigrates morality, but encourages us to avoid feeling moral regret.
What is the best way to address this?
We need to know that Hashem loves us so much when we feel that cringe-inducing pain of moral regret.
We also need to internalize how the pain of regret cleanses & atones for what we’ve done wrong.
The outcome of regret—apologizing & providing some kind of restitution—cleanses and atones for our sins against others.
And those are beautiful results.
Moral Regret MAKES You Moral!
So many people secretly believe their negative behaviors indicate their true self.
But Judaism says the opposite.
Your POSITIVE qualities indicate your TRUE SELF.
Your negative behaviors exist as mere klippos attached to an otherwise holy & pristine neshamah.
They aren’t the real you.
Let’s say someone reveals an unkind truth about someone they don’t like…and that someone enjoys speaking that lashon hara.
Such a person often resists admitting their act was lashon hara. Or they claim it was l’to’eles.
Subconsciously, they believe acknowledging how bad their act was indicates that they are secretly mean, sadistic, and catty at their core.
But it’s not true.
Even if their behavior was indeed mean, sadistic, and catty, those negative traits are in no way the essence of who they are.
Furthermore, we aren’t even responsible for our traits.
Hashem is responsible.
Whether He imbued us with those traits from birth or we developed them by the environment in which He planted us, He chose those traits for us.
So even if a person really is mean, sadistic, and catty, it doesn’t reflect on their intrinsic nature, but rather it reflects on the kind of inner work Hashem wishes them to carry out.
The more a person realizes her negative behaviors do not reflect on her real self, the more liberated she is to acknowledge the lesser traits and rise above them (or use them for good).
And the more a person realizes that regret, restitution, and atonement are so prized by Hashem and help us so much, the more a person will feel joy rather than shame at the process.