Originally posted on May 11, 2015
I recently began teaching The Kite Runner to my accelerated students. For those who have read the book, you are aware of the powerful cycle of sin, forgiveness and redemption at the core of this award-winning story. To put my students in the right frame of mind to understand the protagonist Amir, a man in his late 30s regretting something horrible he did in his adolescence, I asked them to think about the worst thing they had ever done and how they felt about it. While I didn’t want any of them to discuss the horrible thing that happened, several brave souls shared about feeling disappointed, sad and angry after the event.
One student’s answer took me by surprise, although in retrospect I suppose it should not have. This student said she didn’t live with regrets because she looked at life simply as a series of events that makes you who you are today. Again, because of my surprise, I probably got a bit more frustrated than I should have, and I regretted my response, which wasn’t rude per se, but was a bit curt, to be honest.
Yet while I could have been more diplomatic in my reply, I still agree with the core ideas of my rebuttal. The student herself was not at fault, as she was simply repeating the mantra of our age: No Regrets. We plaster these words on T-shirts and body art (and chuckle a bit when the body art is misspelled, creating a lifetime of irony I suppose). We don’t want to feel bad about who we are today and the mistakes we have made, so we wallpaper over them and declare the lumps, cracks and pits as giving the house that is our life a bit more character.
The reason for this philosophy is obvious: we don’t want to be hobbled with guilt so powerful it sends us into a spiraling depression. To avoid this result in their children, some parents offer the following advice: We all make mistakes but we do so because we are young or just don't know any better. The only thing you can do is understand that what has past is past and accept who you are today.
The problem here is we are teaching children that reflecting on our past actions is unhealthy. It is as if we are saying all choices in life are morally equivalent and we must merely accept the consequences and move on. It is like an emotional tornado has twisted through our lives, destroying relationships, causing physical pain and suffering, financial devastation or a myriad of other horrific effects, and all we should do is get up, brush off the dust, and keep on going. We ignore the role we played in the carnage, as we pretend we had no culpability for what happened when we often did.
Please understand I am not saying we should tell children to wallow in misery, as that leads to inaction, or worse. I am reminded of the 1994 film Reality Bites when Ethan Hawke tells Winona Ryder “I have this planet of regret sitting on my shoulders.” I laughed out loud at the line because it seemed he was saying it just to get her to fall for him. While there may not have been any true remorse there, the sentiment has some value. When was the last time we had, maybe not a planet, but even a pebble of regret for our past mistakes? Such an emotional response might help us not make the same mistake again, or it might even motivate us to act boldly when otherwise we would not. Getting back to The Kite Runner, Amir clearly is wracked with guilt over his past transgressions, perhaps to an unhealthy degree, but that guilt is the only thing that motivates him to do something heroic at the end of the tale.
While it is easy to say something vague and non-judgmental in response to our mistakes like “It is what it is”, there is another lesson we can teach the children in our lives. To quote Nick Carraway from near the end of The Great Gatsby, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” We know we have done wrong, in part or in whole, and we must own up to it. In The Kite Runner, Amir feels bound to his “past of unatoned sins”, but his mentor, Rahim Khan, however, offers hope for him, and for all of us who have done something wrong, big or small, in our past. “There is a way to be good again.”
Our duty to the next generation is to help our children find that path, which often must wind through a village of regret, however briefly, if it is to ever reach the land of true healing and growth.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.