Not a longing for what was loved and lost.
I thought this was it, but it isn’t.
Regret, yes. Desire? Yes.
But not for any earlier, more loved times.
For the opposite:
All I couldn’t receive when it came to me.
Could not entirely,
not in proportion.
The full, entire happinesses of life so far:
those I’ve mostly forgotten.
Oh, I can recall them, but they don’t persist,
stirring up longing—
To remember joy is to renew delight.
Fleeting, as is its nature (delight’s),
but untinged: nothing kept apart from the body
for missing to stick to.
Sweetness refused is the alien irritant:
grit which the missing adheres to, surrounds.
Nostalgia’s its sorrow, a species of wistfulness
for all the joys missed, not the ones received. 1
As I approach my seventh decade of life, a time in which the pull toward recollection and reflection (or “life review” as it’s drily called in the gerontology field) increases, I’ve been noticing that my life does seem to include more and more experiences that can be named with “re”-prefixed verbs.
It turns out that the latinate tributary of the english language is especially rich with words that begin with “re:” a prefix which signals some kind of do-over with respect to its word’s root. In fact, there are no fewer than 4443 English words that begin with the prefix “re-“ (I wondered just now, so I looked it up)
So as I auditioned possible topics for this “R is for ___” post, I made a list of some of the most personally significant “re-“ prefixed words that came to mind. Return, rejoice, reflect, reconnect, remorse, readjust, regroup, rejoice, repent, refrain and reconsider were a few that emerged. I also noticed that while respond and reconcile showed up with a good bit of charge to them, I felt less connected with react and resent than I would have in earlier decades.
Nice to know.
In the end, it was regret and receive that lit up the most, the experiences and the natures of both of these occupying as they do the foreground of my inner experiences and reflections these days, omnipresent and potent.
Which was when the opening excerpt came to mind, with its connection between the two. And I realized that it was precisely the intersections and synergy between those two that I wanted to explore here, more.
Etymologically, to regret is to “re-weep.” By its very definition then, regret points to the presence of some kind of loss. In other words, whatever the story or judgement that might be brought to a given regret (“I did wrong,” say, or “I wish I had […]” the actual feeling is one of grief.
The difficulty, I suppose, with regret as a feeling, is that inhabits that realm of what is called these days “ambiguous loss:” the kind of loss that is invisible to others (sometimes even to oneself), often entirely private, and as likely as not to concern something that did not occur as to concern something that did.
Earlier this year, I was introduced to maybe the best book ever on grief: Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow.2
And in the way that these things often do (thank you, workings of providence; thank you, gift of grace!) it landed in my life at just the time I needed exactly what it offered, as I was just beginning to navigate a welter of profound personal losses of my own— a tsunami of loss which was, in the process, resurfacing a flotilla of associated old regrets. So I have been especially grateful for Weller’s wise and lucid description as to why “regret” belongs squarely in the realm of grief.
“Over the course of our lives,” he writes,“grief enters our hearts in many ways.” Calling these the “five gates of grief,” Weller places “regrets” in the “second gate”which he describes as including
those choices we made that hindered or harmed others or ourselves: the un-lived life of abandoned dreams, friendships that withered and died, or the decision to withdraw our hearts from the world and neither receive nor offer love. These things we regret are sources of deep and abiding loss. To live with regret is a heavy sadness. It is like walking through a graveyard of loss.
As I read this passage, I felt an immediate, visceral sense of surprise and relief: there were many of the varieties of my own regrets, named and compassionately-acknowledged as kinds of losses, versus a cause for shame.
And with that recognition and relief arrived a felt-understanding that while the private and “heavy sadness” of regret can become the angry-frozen grief that is bitterness, or the sad-frozen grief of despair, or the hot grief that is shame, that regret itself is not the same as these.
As I continue to reflect more deeply on my regrets, by way of the opening-within that compassionate acknowledgement itself creates (first Weller’s, then my own by way of the invitation of his), I realize that it’s probably true that as many regrets as I have about things I’ve done, most of my most ache-y regrets have to do with what I have either withheld from others, or have refused to receive.
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” George Saunders declared in his commencement address to the Syracuse University Class of 2013.3
Yes, kindness especially. Thank you for saying so, G.S.; me too.
About twenty-five years into our marriage (which was almost half of it ago, now), my husband and I experienced one of those kinds of crises which, if it doesn’t end in some variation of relationship despair, can be the portal to the kind of deepening of love and trust that may be possible in no other way but through such a crucible.
Seared into my heart’s memory is the moment when, in the midst of whatever issue we were arguing, R. abruptly stopped.
Then, looking at me with intense pain and love, he said simply, Just let me love you!
All at once, in the presence of that plaintive, loving invitation, I both felt and saw the essential vulnerability inherent in the act of receiving. Here was all this spacious, tender, and (I had to admit) unconditional love, and I wasn’t letting it in. Saw that that was what so many of my complaints and criticisms and withholdings were really about: not about his failures, but about my fear of receiving, looking to justify itself (the fear was) by finding something wrong with him. That in fact my part of our struggle was not about “not getting my needs met” (a relationship discourse I have since come to loathe, since it endorses the project of getting from the other as a primary goal): I wasn’t “getting my needs met” because something in me was afraid to receive.
And while my fear of receiving was based in experiences in my formative years which had taught me to suspect “giving” to be a kind “taking” in disguise, that did not make it always true.
But I had lived as though it was always true, tilting at windmills in marriage and friendships, refusing to receive their simplest and deepest gifts: of generosity, tenderness, the acknowledgement and sharing of sorrow. Of offers of wisdom, and of various kinds of aid.
And, in the way our experience of and stories about others both shape and reflect our deepest fears about ourselves, my distrust naturally extended to my own, genuine loving impulses (I am realizing this part as I write it, now): distrust of my own generosity, patience, kindness, and sorrow, to name a few.
So, I had been largely withholding these from the world (or had offered them, but from an emotional distance), and let my smarts and thoughts (with their more comfortable distance for me, and presumedly safer distance for others)— stand in.
* * *
Which reflection on my regrets around my failures of receiving reactivates a long-held grievance concerning the oft-quoted, commonly-accepted, supposed-admonition attributed to Jesus, that “It is better to give than to receive.”
I am quite sure that Jesus never said or meant that, in fact; that what he said/meant was that “It is better to give than to take.” But so as not to take you (and myself) on the lengthy detour of my argument and its evidence here, I’ll include that instead as a postscript .
in the heavens,
hoping to be
but did not
So today —right now— I resolve to lean into (instead of away from) the bodily feeling of a specific, long-held regret in my own flotilla of regrets that has floated to the front— one that I prefer to keep in the periphery of my vision because of its very potency.
And as I touch into the felt-quality of the pain of loss itself that lives below the noisy voices of my judgement, my fear, and my shame and just continue to breathe through the feel of it, I begin to notice a softening-open of something solid and cold inside, and then a stirring —as from a slight breeze or distant whisper— that comes to meet it.
Then something happens that I can’t really explain or describe except to say that it’s like the essential energy or spirit of the regret merges again with the whole of my essential vitality itself (my inner voice wants to say “soul” here, so there it is), as though a dimension of it has been restored, refreshed.
* * *
I said: ‘what about my eyes?’
He said: Keep them on the road.
I said: ‘What about my passion?’
He said: Keep it burning.
I said: ‘What about my heart?’
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: ‘Pain and sorrow.’
He said: Stay with it.
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
Commonly translated as “It is better to give than to receive,” this supposed teaching of Jesus is one that, I will argue, has caused untold personal, spiritual and cultural confusion and damage— confusion and damage not only among avowed Christians (and other followers of Jesus’ teachings), but in the secular culture at large also, which its message has long infected. But it is a teaching and admonition which has never made sense to me, on a couple of different levels.
At the level simply of basic reason: what good is any giving that is not received, beyond gratifying the ego of the giver (which Jesus taught against about a million times)? And how can it be “good” to feed someone but “bad” (or in any way less “good”) to eat what is offered? If receiving is necessary to complete an act of giving (as it obviously is), how can one gesture be “better” in any way than the other?
It also doesn’t make sense to me that Jesus would even say that, since his teaching and example otherwise so often emphasize the importance —even holiness—of receiving. In John 13:1-17 for instance, Jesus’ disciples initially balk when he insists that they allow him to wash their feet. To which he replies that “unless you do this [unless you yourselves experience the vulnerability of receiving] you will have no part in me [you will not be fully representing my teaching and example by your own in the world].”
So I got to wondering if the problem might be in a distortion created in the translation (historically always by men) to English from the Aramaic in which Jesus actually taught and spoke.
In English, the words “take” and “receive” are commonly used as though they were synonymous, and therefore interchangeable. But in fact “to take” connotes an active, assertive, even aggressive act, connected with acquiring something for oneself. It is initiated from the part of ourselves that has a sense of personal agency of some sort, with the intent to use that agency get something.
In contrast, you can feel (at least I can) the different energy around the position involved in receiving: there is a vulnerability, passivity, humility, and event incipient gratitude involved in the act of receiving. Receiving does not act upon; it accepts.
So I did some research into the Aramaic language, and what I found was exactly what I had begun to suspect: that the Aramaic word for “receive” and for “take” are the same word: 5 קָב . So it follows that both the denotation and connotation could have been understood only in context.
Such that it is entirely plausible that Jesus actually meant was “it is better to give than to take.”
Which understanding not only makes that teaching consistent with (instead of jarringly off-key from) his other teachings on similar themes, but restores “receiving” to its rightful place as the complementary (to giving) virtue it is, and not a kind of murky semi-vice.
- Excerpt from the poem, “The Eddy Fence.” In: Henderson, Donna, The Eddy Fence. Airlie Press, 2007.
- Weller, Francis, The Wild Edge of Sorrow. North Atlantic Books, 2015
- Saunders’ address, with its theme of “kindness” evidently touched a nerve among readers: soon after, the text was posted on a blog in the New York Times where in a very short time it received over a million hits. The address was subsequently re-published as a little book entitled Congratulations, By The Way.
- from my untitled (so far) poetry sequence-in-progress
A note to readers/subscribers: This is a copy of the post which is now published first on Substack, which is where I am asking subscribers through this platform to now subscribe to “Are You With Me Here.” Future posts will still appear here, but in an abbreviated form (the first couple of paragraphs or so), with a link to the Substack version to access the full post.