August 15, 2022

Misbehave in Quickness, Regret in Leisure

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Astute readers of this column will remember that in a ceremony held a year ago I was voted Liar of the Year, a dubious honor I neither sought nor coveted. It was presented to me for a favorable biography I wrote and published of an unsavory old reprobate who had the good fortune to have a well-heeled nephew who wanted to enhance his family image about the time I was in need of a little ready cash. Reprobate himself had expired ten years earlier, so I took a chance that memories of the old villain had sufficiently faded, and I made him out to be one of those lilies of the field whose beauty even Solomon in all his glory couldn’t exceed. I mean, I scrubbed and polished on his blemished life until it shone with incandescent brilliance. The man could have applied for sainthood and got it!

Now, you could reasonably ask if it didn’t bother my conscience to exaggerate and fabricate, and cobble something together with so little regard for truth. And, I must confess, it did. Not exceedingly, mind you, but to that degree not altogether masked by my straightened financial condition at the time. Since then, I’ve had plenty of leisure time in which to arrive at a compounded regret, and I use the word deliberately.

Fellow Islanders meant the liar award as a compliment, an accolade, but to me–that is until recently–it’s been a curse! Instructive in many ways, but difficult to bear. Among other things, it has seriously interfered with my writing and my way of making a living. Why, for the whole of this year, when someone has solicited a vanity piece from my pen, I have had to mentally park my inhibitions, whereas before, doing so was just second nature. The fact that this has not been difficult is something of a disquieting thought, but that is not the only outcome. There has been a philosophical distinction to be considered.

I’ve had a year to consider the difference between the words regret and repentance. And I’ve decided that while we use these words interchangeably, they’re really maps of separate countries. I once asked a group of adults to think of the worst thing each had done, and I gave them a couple minutes to mull the matter over. Then I invited confessions, but not before I asked them to look around the room at all the smiling faces.

“What was so bad about what you did that the memory of it now brings you pleasure?” I asked them.

The point was that if our worst behavior is the occasion for levity, it rather dismisses any ideas regarding regret, wouldn’t you agree? And of what could we possibly repent?

Perhaps it’s only possible to be repentant of any harm we’ve inflicted on others; everything else would be in the regret category, and the latter appears to be more a matter of reflection, unavailable in moments of stress or temptation. I model whatever truth lies in the idea of “misbehave in quickness, regret in leisure,” although in the case of this accursed award it is only a half-truth because, perhaps sadly, it wasn’t the lying I regretted, but the notoriety gained through the act of lying.

There’s the difference between repentance and regret in a nutshell. I lied magnificently in wholesale fashion and cashed the check in perfect triumph. Any regret has only to do with the notion that I would, on balance, prefer that people think of me as a paragon of stately virtue or some reasonably close resemblance of that idea. It has nettled my ego that they might think otherwise.

What occasions this outburst is that this year’s ceremony was held last night, and the limelight is now centered on someone else. You’d think I’d be glad, and, indeed, I thought I’d be glad. I find, however, that in place of those sterling qualities of integrity and unimpeachable merit with which I’ve always considered myself, I have something of a character flaw. Minor, I’m sure, but nevertheless observable. I’ve grown to rather like the reputation and the attention.

It’s hardly worth mentioning, but there’s been at least one other benefit. Receipts this year have been way up! This is indeed a strange thing! Hand out a “Liar of the Year” award then clamor for the recipient to make your relative or your family the subject of the next tall tale. Rather convincing evidence that homo is only lightly connected to ideas related to sapiens, wouldn’t you say?

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