Evil is the bad things that happened. Regret is the good things that did not happen. Regret troubles us more. Evil is bad in itself, not because of the things that did not happen instead; but we value what might have been more than what was as absolutely as we value the lives of children over the lives of adults. What happened is finite. What did not happen is infinite.
If harboring regret is weak then we are all weak. We shame regret in others, because we have no way to defy it in ourselves. Meanwhile regret reigns. Dreams beguile hope; fantasies beguile regret. The distinction matters because regret is stronger than hope – hope is finite. Love or money always come into it somehow. But less often as, “This will get me rich” or “This will get me laid” than as “It is not to late to succeed” or “It is not too late to be loved.” This is nontrivial. Hope only wants; regret has something to prove.
There is something heart-softening, something miraculous, about the repair of a regret, about a second chance. We stand naked before these incidents. Forget cures and escapes. A miracle is whatever repairs regret. And even then, even with the miracle, regret can still win. Too much time has been lost. It is too late anyway.
There is a poignancy to cosmologies which transcend regret – say, reincarnation, or the quantum theory of many worlds. We could be born again. We could have been born before. All the connections and chances we recognized but did not make, did not take, they were real – we missed them this time around, but we have made them before, we may take them again. There could be more than one of each of us, flickering above neighboring peaks in one eternal unresolved chord, near as the backs of one another’s mirrors – all arrayed, some strangely better, some strangely worse, some only strangers – but at least one, surely at least one, who was lucky, who was helped, who did not have to, who found a way.
But regret is not for escaping. The worst man is the man without regret. As far as philosophy purges regret, philosophy is bad. Ancient philosophy, the kind that would have us make philosophers of ourselves, is moving and useful, yet there is something in it not quite worthy, even somehow seedy: and this is because it does not recognize or accommodate regret. Here is Polonius. Here is a man learned, wise, crafty, with good taste in poetry – but he lacks regret, and this is enough to make him ridiculous.
Regrets are the broken circuits of actions. There they lie, loose and fatal as wrecks of power lines after a storm wind, still electric. Think of actors, finding in themselves the other people they might have been, getting to know them, putting them on. Think of music – music, after rhythm, runs on regret. (Thus the ancient enmity of music and philosophy.)
Regret is a shadow theodicy with an unknown god. Heaven, the very most that can be hoped for, promises to unite you with your loved ones; but not with the ones you should have loved, not with the ones who should have loved you. Regret is too large a part of this world to be salved by another. The veiled being who afflicted us with regret remains silent. Without evil we could still be ourselves. We are made of regret.