Any self-aware person has regrets – for words spoken or unspoken, for things we did – or wished we had done. There is no way to take back a word spoken in anger, or an action that hurt someone.
Dealing with our regrets is a major industry in America, often becoming an obsession among people who see themselves as victims. People want to “fix” the past, but it is impossible to do so, because the past cannot be unravelled. Paying reparations or “checking your privilege” is usually counterproductive, perpetuating our memories, instead of allowing us to grow. So, too, does therapy, bringing events back to life, refreshing old events, memories that would in most cases be best left buried and slowly forgotten. In the minds of villain and victim alike, remembering wrongdoing is to relive it, to bind our present and future ever-closer to the past. This way lies Identity Politics.
Once a person starts to identify with their old grievances, then they become trapped by them, unable to grow in new directions, to find ways to make themselves better people.
It is very seductive to identify ourselves (and others) with the things we regret having done. If we are not careful, we get locked into becoming the person whom we were, not who we want to be – and we subject others to the same judgments. And we compound the error through our speech, when we describe others through the lens of our own judgmental memories. Even when a person is ready to “move on,” their family, friends and community may make that nearly impossible.
But how can we forgive ourselves, or anyone else? I think the answer lies in the idea of transformative change. A person who changes enough so that they see themselves as being different than they were is someone who can move on from the past, and whom others should also be willing to consider with fresh eyes.
This entire mindset is anathema, of course, to more common beliefs in destiny or fate, or the worldview that we are the products of our nature or our nurture, describable and predictable because of our biology or our upbringing. Deterministic judgments are self-perpetuating, and it batters the concept of free will into irrelevance.
In order to grow, we have to believe that people are capable of fundamental and meaningful change – and we have to believe it not only about ourselves, but also about others. Grudges feel good, but they make us prisoners in our own minds.
The Torah addresses this issue repeatedly, though the first example is the most famous: G-d tells Adam and Eve that if they eat the forbidden fruit, “on that day you shall surely die.” But they ate the fruit without dying! Was G-d lying to them?
I think G-d was making a different, and important point: because they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve were altered, irrevocably different from the people they had been before. And the change was purely in their minds – they saw the world differently after eating the fruit than they did before. By changing their worldviews, the “old” Adam and Eve died! They were never the same again.
In this sense, the Torah is telling us there is hope through our actions and deeds: we can become different people, killing off and burying our old selves within our lifetimes. This can be an active event, like committing to changing ourselves. Or it can happen through experience: we cannot “unsee” war or death, just as we cannot “unhear” hurtful words spoken by someone we trust or love. But if we are able to accept that we –and others – are capable of real change, then it makes it possible for true reconciliation. This path is more frightening, but it is, in my opinion, the best way to truly be able to move on and live our lives to the fullest.