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Regrets, good and bad
The easiest way to separate the old from the young - aside from counting white hairs on the head - is to ask someone what regrets they have in life.
A teenager will give you a weird look as if you had just asked them what they want to have for lunch two Thursdays from now.
An old man, meanwhile, will respond to the question by looking off into the distance chuckling, or alternatively, by sighing deeply and then shaking his head, wondering if declining Sara’s invitation to skinny dip into the pool when they were both teenagers that night her parents were out of town is really a regret worth sharing.
Regrets of the financial sort are also quite common. Not buying a home in California in the 1990s to see that 10x return on equity thirty years later, keeping all the savings in a checking account for so long when you could have been investing it, etc.
The funny thing about these sorts of regrets is that they’ll always be there, no matter how good you’ve had it. Even if you bought six homes in the 1990s, you could have always bought seven or eight. It’s ridiculous to think about, but I bet that every single billionaire has kicked themselves in the head over some investment they missed out on.
For the most part, I think regrets aren’t worth dwelling on, but George Saunders provides an important caveat. In one of his essays, he provides a sort of regret that I find particularly compelling.
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
The Saunders quote reminds me of a time in college when three friends and I got stuck with a flat tire in the middle of a bustling street in south Berkeley. While we fixed the flat, a homeless guy approached us asking for some help. We mostly ignored him, given that we were trying to get our car up and running - well, except for Alex, that is. Without hesitation, he told us he’d see us later, and he walked off with the homeless guy to get him a bite to eat.
The rest of us, meanwhile, continued with the sensible, reasonable task of replacing the flat tire.
A similar theme comes up in Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan. In his story, the selfless nature of the Samaritan isn’t contrasted with the senseless violence of the bandits who beat a man half-to-death, but with the reserved, mild reactions of the Levite and Jewish priest who casually ignore the suffering man. Again, the failure to be kind seems to be of greater concern than the explicit act of violence.
The story of the Good Samaritan is fascinating to me because it reveals such a disconnect we have within ourselves. When we listened to the parable as kids, we never had a doubt that the Levite and Jewish priest were the “bad guys” in the story.
That said, “bad guys” might be too strong a term. It’s quite possible that the Levite and the priest were in a hurry to attend some important function when they ignored the dying man on the side of the road. Similarly, we were quite busy replacing a flat tire when a homeless guy approached us looking for a bite to eat.
And that’s the danger with these failures of kindness that Saunders talks about. Unlike explicitly malicious acts, failures of kindness are normalized and widely accepted in society. We fail to be good people all the time. For the most part, we seem to be ok with that.
Just think about all the times we encounter someone passed out on the sidewalk and the thoughts that follow.
Am I really expected to wake the person up? Also, where would I even take him anyways? Sure, I could buy him a meal or a night in a hotel, but come on, am I really expected to do that? Ya I mean, I guess I could call 911, but then I’d have to wait at least 15 minutes and I’m already sort of late to this happy hour.
Some combination of these thoughts might flash through our heads, as we continue on with our day, just as the priest and Levite did thousands of years ago.