Jan 18, 2024
“…Regretting your actions would mean disclaiming the entire forward course of world (cosmic) history.”
Today’s the day you’ve promised to help your friend move her couch. Keys in hand, you’re just about to leave the house when you think, “I have time for one more beer.” Soon you realize you’re not going anywhere.
The couch never gets moved, and your friendship is strained. You hear through the grapevine that your ‘friend’ has half-jokingly threatened to do you bodily harm. You messed up! So, is it OK for you to regret your actions?
Yes and no. Sure, you can wish you’d been a better person in that moment, that you’d put your friend’s needs above your own desires, and that you’d honored your commitment. But you cannot regret the result! “Just one more beer” triggered a cascade of events that make you uncomfortable in retrospect, but you have absolutely no idea what would have happened had you left the house that day as planned.
Not to belabor the obvious, but... you might have been killed in a car crash. You might have been arrested (justifiably so, as it happens) for driving while ‘over the limit’. You might have ruptured a disc when lifting the furniture, or…
“Wait!” You counter, “Sometimes a couch is just a couch.” Sez who? You think you could have moved that couch and changed nothing else? Wow! You really are a megalomaniac.
It’s OK, probably appropriate in fact, for you to regret the beer-guzzling person you were that day; it’s not OK for you to regret your actions, or lack of action, per se. To do so would be to regret the entire course of your life from the moment you ‘cracked that forty’: the spouse you married, the children you bore, the career you enjoyed, and your ‘peaceful’ death at age 85.
Regretting your actions would mean regretting the course of your friend’s life as well—all the things she did, felt, and experienced ‘because’ she didn’t move that couch that day. In fact, regretting your actions would mean disclaiming the entire forward course of world (cosmic) history.
We imagine that history is a river flowing slowly and, for the most part, uneventfully through time. We imagine this even though we know that it isn’t remotely true. In fact, every event has an infinite number of potential consequences. How many times did your life change because you turned right rather than left?
Please don’t say, “Yah, but probably not.” That might be true if we could repeat the same action/inaction test multiple times and monitor the results over a narrow spacetime domain. But that’s not reality! IRL, there are no do-overs, and there are no domains. Events that occurred in your life at age five are still coloring your life at 75…even if you’re entirely unaware of it. The imaginary rules of the laboratory do not apply on the street corner.
Lacking omniscience and omnipotence—in fact, lacking any knowledge or power whatsoever--, you have nonetheless made yourself God. You are YHWH after the Apple, before the Flood, at the gates of Sodom. You are prepared to destroy the world, albeit inadvertently.
Action is a membrane between the actor (e.g., you) and the acted upon (i.e., the world). It is a wrinkle in the topology of Being. As Zeno correctly observed, it is a rupture in the spacetime continuum.
To act is directional, but action itself is reciprocal. “Every action entails an equal and opposite reaction.” (Newton) The acted upon also acts, and the actor is also acted upon. Acting infects spacetime with pseudo-polarity. But it’s really just a matter of Gestalt. For modern Indo-European speakers, any way, it seems ‘natural’ to see actor as figure and acted upon as ground, but the negative image is equally valid, just harder (for us) to visualize.
The nascent science of Ecology studies the action of the ground on the figure. It explores the reactive phase of any act. How does the acted upon act upon the actor? How is the actor impacted by the actor’s own actions?
As AT has noted elsewhere, there is no figure and there is no ground; nothing is purely active, and nothing is entirely passive. Active/passive duality is (1) an illusion, (2) a trick of language, (3) an abstraction, and/or (4) a special or ‘degenerate’ case.
Fifth graders learn to diagram sentences on a ‘line’; we need to learn to diagram them ‘on a circle’. Plus, we can only properly navigate that circle by moving both clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. This gives entirely new meaning to that famous barroom koan, “What goes around comes around.”
Every transitive verb has, in fact, two subjects and two objects. To act upon another is to act upon yourself. Those who imagine themselves to be subjects must accept that they are also objects. It’s OK to regret an action that reflects badly on you, the actor, but it is not OK to regret an action because of its consequences. To reiterate, you have no knowledge of or control over those consequences.
So, yes, always try to be the best person you can be in the moment…but don’t blame yourself for the course of cosmic history. You didn’t know, and you couldn’t have intentionally altered the outcome even if you had.