Regrets, I've had a few

Regret, the subject of my new essay, is one of the most valuable tools we have in our moral lives. It's how we reconcile with the strangers our past selves always are to us.

Welcome, new subscribers! (Also continuing subscribers!) This is where I write about the progress of my book on burnout, anything else I’m publishing, and anything else that comes to mind (often problems around knowledge and why Twitter is terrible). Right now, I’m sending these emails out once a month.

New essay

My essay, “Je Regrette Tout,” was recently published in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review. It begins with an account of a mild regret I had one night about 20 years ago:

I was driving my Chrysler LeBaron convertible with the duct-taped top to a Target store near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. I was in the area for a regional academic conference, and I needed, well, who knows what. I came to an intersection and saw the familiar red, illuminated letters through my driver’s-side window. There was little traffic. I got in the left lane and turned into the store’s parking lot.

Immediately, I was stuck. In mud. The intersection was a T, not a cross, as I had thought, and I had been looking at the back of the Target. There was no parking lot, just a grassy expanse between the road and the shopping center.

The problem is that, according to conventional wisdom, you’re not supposed to regret anything. Our culture is pretty firmly anti-regret. If you never admit wrongdoing, there’s a decent chance you won’t suffer any consequences, as if you never committed the wrong in the first place. There are more- and less-theorized versions of the “no regrets” philosophy, from the ancient Stoics to basically every idiot who has ever been on a reality TV show.

Today’s Stoics are economists and psychologists who espouse rational decision-making. We should take an unsentimental view toward sunk costs, they counsel, and make our decisions based on the future we wish to live, not the past we’ve already lived….

But ethics is about more than rationality. It’s also about relationships with strangers, including the strangers we each are to ourselves. Regret allows us to enter into an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past. The self-as-eternally-new-manager model is right about one thing: Even the person you were a moment ago can seem alien to who you are now, given a sufficiently consequential decision separating the one from the other. What kind of nitwit drives straight into a muddy field, thinking it’s a parking lot? I would never do that. But that guy? What was wrong with him?

Moral growth doesn’t just mean looking to the future but reconciling past and present selfhood. It demands regret. The person who regrets nothing becomes a conduit for experience without being enlarged or deepened by it. It passes right through her uninterrupted, never bending back on itself, never pooling, never overflowing her banks.

As I have said many times in this newsletter series, I have learned much about good writing (and good living) from the essayist Meghan Daum. “Je Regrette Tout” is heavily influenced by Daum’s way of thinking, especially in “Not What It Used to Be,” her essay on nostalgia from the 2014 collection, The Unspeakable. Daum is a quietly Nietzschean thinker. In “Not What It Used to Be,” she imagines a thought experiment that recalls Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return of the same; her middle-aged self appears out of nowhere to tell her 20-year old self to change her life. (It doesn’t work.) I run the experiment on myself in the essay on regret. Influenced by Daum, I see regret as the way to make peace with the person you once were, and to take responsibility for the terrible decisions that made you who you now are.

As the piece progresses, I talk about much more consequential regrets than the wrong turn in the LeBaron. You’ll have to read it to find out what I truly wish I could take back.

The essay is currently only available to subscribers; I can assure you, Hedgehog Review is very well worth a subscription. I just read this great essay from the same issue, on the differing charismatic styles of Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey, opponents in an election matchup that, for a moment, seemed plausible.

"Je Regrette Tout" will come out from behind the paywall eventually, but I don’t know when.

Twitter update

I have only logged into Twitter once since I last wrote you, when I said I think of Twitter as a nuisance bar that degrades everyone who sets foot in it. Like a pack of drunks, people on Twitter fixate on one dumb thing at a time that they find outrageously funny, then move on to something slightly dumber. It’s kind of like what Tim Kreider (another of my favorite essayists) says about his days of heavy drinking:

Nick and I once wrecked our friend Gabe’s entire dining room laughing at something one of us had said, whirling around and toppling over and clutching desperately at tablecloths and knickknack shelves, like a couple of robots gone berserk, but the next morning neither of us could remember what had been so funny.

The trouble on Twitter is, the butt of the joke probably remembers what it was.

A friend of mine who’s in recovery told me once that he kept drinking partly out of fear of missing out on whatever was happening at the bars. After he quit, he realized he wasn’t missing anything. Because the fact is, not that many truly interesting things happen in bars, and if you’re really knocking them back, like Kreider in that anecdote, you probably won’t remember what did happen anyway. That’s about how I feel about Twitter now. I do check in on a handful of my favorite accounts, but it’s so obvious that I’m better off not going to that bar anymore.

OK, true: I love it when I have a new essay out, and people tweet about it. It’s nice to be toasted in that way. So maybe I’ll poke my head in again soon, briefly, to promote my work and accept whatever praise people have for it.

News and events

I was scheduled to speak on “Thomas Aquinas and the Demons of Work” at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana on March 26, but that event has been postponed, most likely until March 2021. I’m grateful to my friend Anita Houck for inviting me to spend a few days with her students and colleagues.

Last month I led a workshop for faculty at Austin College in Sherman, Texas (an hour’s drive north of Dallas) on burnout and the academic vocation. Thanks to Randi Tanglen for inviting me. I was a little envious of the spirit of collegiality the faculty have there. After my talk was over, several of them stuck around to talk about a project they shared. That’s one of the best parts about teaching at a small college: it’s clear every day that you are in a collaborative effort to help students learn. You may teach literature, but you probably know what the chemists are teaching. You have common goals. I miss that.


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