by Erica Brown
THOMAS ARNOLD KEMP was executed this past April through lethal injection. He stole $200 from a college student in Tucson in 1992 and then murdered him. It took seven minutes for Mr. Kemp to die. His last words: “I regret nothing.”
I have been thinking about Mr. Kemp and death and regret, perhaps obsessively. Regret incites us to review and reflect on our actions; when we miss the mark, regret generates disappointment and grief. Regret would not have kept Mr. Kemp alive. But it might have kept him decent.
Regret is an essential part of repentance in Jewish law, and, as a Jewish educator, I find myself thinking about regret each year before Yom Kippur. As part of my research into the subject this year, I handed out index cards to my students from age 18 to over 80, and asked them to list a small regret and a large regret.
Here is a random sampling.
In the small-regret category:
I didn’t participate more in school.
I am sorry I didn’t take more vacations.
I was nasty to people.
I regret not trying harder in college.
I should have paused to notice a stranger and to express kindness to them.
I was callous in breaking up with a girlfriend.
I haven’t lost weight.
I did not purchase an exercise bike when it was on a great sale. [I did not make this up.]
In the large-regret category:
I wish I had spent more time with my mother the year she died.
I did not tell a friend why I ended our friendship.
I regret my failure to love my ex-wife in the manner she needed.
I never said thank you to my father.
I could have done more to help my brother when he was despairing and depressed.
I haven’t been more welcoming to my sister-in-law.
I retired too early.
I should have retired a long time ago.
I gave up on too many dreams.
We rarely connect regret to death, but then we rarely connect death to anything because we’d rather talk about grocery shopping, gardening and taxes.
But, reading my students’ regrets helped me understand the connection between regret and death.
In the course of research for a book on death and how to overcome fear of mortality, I spent years speaking to dying individuals and their families. The notion, famously attributed to Samuel Johnson, that nothing concentrates the mind like imminent death jumped off the page again and again as I conducted my research. Imminent death often occasions self-reflection and, with it, disappointment and remorse.
“I regret nothing,” is code for “I am not going to die.” And maybe that’s what Mr. Kemp thought to himself. Maybe he thought the audacity of regretting nothing would buy him more time. But it just added to his callousness. “I regret nothing” is another way of saying, “I will live in a false, comfortable bubble where I am not accountable for wrongdoing.” Maybe, if we regret nothing, we will live forever.
If you have no sadness or remorse, you are a liar or a denier, or worse still, you haven’t lived. No one makes it through a life without words better left unsaid, poor judgments or thoughtless omissions. I can barely make it through a day without all three.
Kathryn Schulz, the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” calls regret an “existential wake-up call” and shares research about our top regrets. Most often, these involve mistaken judgments in the areas of education, career choice, romance and relationships, parenting, self-knowledge and the way we spend our leisure time. Few of us focus on regrets involving money.
In a much viewed TED talk, Ms. Schulz offers her tattoo as the ultimate emblem of regret. You may love your tattoo or it may remind you that you are no longer in love with the person whose name is permanently emblazoned on your lower back. Ms. Schulz uses Johnny Depp’s tattoo as an example. “Winona Forever” under laser-treatment after a failed engagement to Winona Ryder became “Wino Forever” on Mr. Depp’s right upper arm. Yes, it’s hard to get rid of regrets. They are stubborn, another human stain, to borrow from Philip Roth.
I have saved my index cards. I asked the original holders of the cards to flip them over and write down one thing they could do to improve how they live. You can’t eliminate a regret, but you can transform one. Imagining a way to fix the future was easier than most students thought and provided a better, more realistic life solution than invincibility. It offered a sliver of optimism. I am keeping the cards because they remind me that death may be around the corner.
I regret to inform you that you, too, are going to die. If you take heart, heed Arthur Miller’s sage advice and die with the right regrets.
Erica Brown is scholar in residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the author of the forthcoming book “Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death.” She is a frequent contributor to OU publications. This essay first appeared in the New York Times.