No Lasting City: On Memory and Regret

Regrets? I’ve had more than a few.
Stubborn vignettes cling inexplicably to the crags of my memory. There was the time in fifth grade when Heide, the prettiest girl in school, approached me in the lunch line, held up a quarter, and asked if I wouldn’t mind buying her a pretzel. I proved how cool I was by saying "no," and, perhaps not coincidentally, that encounter would be the closest thing to a date I’d have until senior year.
Or once when I was visiting Poland as a guest of locals, and having gotten it into my head that I wanted to acquire a Russian wristwatch (I have a thing for mechanical watches, and at the time — three years after the Berlin Wall came down — I was passing through a sentimental Cold War kitsch phase), I had my hosts inquiring at every jeweler’s in Krakow. I can still clearly see, in my mind’s eye, the mutually exchanged glances signifying exasperation, bewilderment, and pique. One doughy fellow looked about ready to clock me one. And he should have, by God.
Ten thousand things I’ve said, in anger, or ignorance, or calculated malice. Add in the opportunities missed: doors left closed and paths untraveled. Humiliations? Had ’em. Misinformed and under-considered choices, too — in spades.
And the sins. Let us not leave out the sins.
When, late at night or in moments of discouragement or idleness, I find myself reliving these many occasions of regret — such as you yourself sometimes do, I’m sure — I find it helpful to do two things.
First, to drink the cup of humiliation to the dregs. To revel in past missteps and their consequences, not in a perverse way but as a discipline of humility: I think this is the antidote to regret, and regret’s virtuous opposite. To think on a time you stuck your foot in it, when you zigged when you should have zagged; a time you goofed, made a gaffe, or took guff — and to thank God for it — this can be a spiritually healthy exercise. I don’t always manage to pull it off, myself, but when I do I find it leads to greater peace, and a trust in Providence.
Then, the second interior motion: to let it go. To recall that the ills of the past are in the past, and receding further therein every second. If to praise God for regrets is to achieve His peace, to remember next that the objects of regret exist only in the folds of your brain — that’s His consolation. In my case, consolation that fifth-grade me rebuffing Heide and her pretzel has been rendered null and void.
Of course, good memories, too, can require special handling. For we’re liable to lose ourselves in reveries, or allow ourselves to contrast unfavorably our present condition with the health or optimism or freedom of younger days. Yes, it seems clear that, in some circumstances, the recollection of good times can become an illicit indulgence.
Once, in my younger, freer, more optimistic days, I was staying with a religious order during the Easter Triduum (for me an edifying retreat, for them an unsuccessful attempt to get me to sign on with the program), and the weekend’s activities included a bus trip to a local basilica. On the way, a fellow lay retreatant sidled over and whispered:
"Check out those [seminarians and priests of this particular order] — they never look out the window. They’re not allowed to. They do it to practice custody of the eyes."
An admirable concept, custody of the eyes (I’m reminded, of all things, of Ben Stein’s recollection of how his father would habitually look down at his shoes when in the presence of any beautiful woman who was not Mrs. Stein), and one that I think can be adapted to the memory. Can we not just as well take "custody" of the faculty of memory: reigning it in, putting it in its place, making it our servant instead of our master? Is that not what St. Ignatius was getting at in his Suscipe?
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
"This too shall pass," my father used to say, not long after he’d got himself re-converted, whenever the family was going through a rough patch. True enough. But the good times pass too, don’t they? The flip side of regret’s disappearance, it would seem, is the bittersweetness of pleasant memories. So precious, so delicious, so hazed-over and idealized and tucked close to the heart. So . . . over and gone. Is that not what we must conclude, if we’re to enjoy the consolation of believing the bad memories are gone, too?
Maybe not. I, for one, hold out hope that what we have coming to us is an eschatological win-win — the mnemonic equivalent of having our cake and eating it too. Heaven and earth will pass away, and that means all our sins, follies, and humiliations as well. But inasmuch as the good memories — being moments of truth, beauty, charity — have their source and summit in God, perhaps they will endure. And more than endure: be made perfect, even as we are.
Maybe, just maybe, we can in this world persist in the hope that our regrets have indeed burned like chaff, but that our good memories, having been offered to the Lord, will be recapitulated, and by Him infolded in the richness of heaven.

Todd M. Aglialoro is the editor for Sophia Institute Press and a columnist and blogger for


  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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