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  • Escaping the Grip of Regret, Part 3: Through Phoenix Gate

    In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on regret, I have tried to portray something of the nature and power of regret as it manifests in our lives.  Hopefully I have succeeded in making one very central thing clear: regret is not some peripheral thing in our lives that is going to be cleared away by simply improving our thinking.  It strikes deeper.  It is much more fundamental.  How then are we to deal with the presence of regret in our lives?

    One of the first steps is to frankly acknowledge the danger to us that regret represents.  Regret, truly strong regret, has the power to deprive us of a meaningful life in the present, even though it concerns events in our past.

    Neither will regret be skirted.  It often stands in the center of the road of our journey.  The way that it holds our energy can seem hopelessly entangling.

    Acknowledging the sheer pain of regret can be very hard to do.  As is often the case with strong negative feelings, we try to deny their existence.  Yet it is only acknowledging the pain that really makes us aware of the life that has been lost, of which the regret reminds us.  And it is only in acknowledging the pain and sometimes the despair that is associated with regret that the energy that is tied up in it can begin to be freed up to move toward something else in our lives.  And that something may have real life and real meaning for us.

    Despair is usually the last place we want to go.  The last thing we want to face in our lives.  Yet, it is in our despair that our energy gets caught.

    What is it about what we regret that really keeps us from wanting to release it?  Can we face the hurt inherent in failed hopes?  Does regret really move us more deeply into the question of what our life is about, and whether we find it meaningful or not?  As the character Ivan says in the recent film Greenberg , can we really come to accept and cherish a life other than the one we planned?

    Carl Jung frequently used a phrase that he took from the ancient world” amor fati .  Literally translated, it means “the love of one’s fate.”  This is not a phrase to be chucked around glibly, and Jung certainly did not do that.  However, the idea of loving one’s fate is the mirror opposite of living a life that is consumed by regret.

    When one looks at the painful, and sometimes even horrific events that can be endured by human beings, one can only conclude that it would be a grim mockery to counsel someone to somehow love these actual events.  That would be the bitterest possible perversion of some idea of positive thinking.  I don’t think that is what Jung means when he uses the phrase amor fati. I think what he does mean is that the person who loves his or her fate somehow lives in hope, and sees a meaning emerging in the midst of the fabric of his or her life.  Such a life and such a hope offers the possibility of living passionately into life — beyond the chains of regret.

    I’d welcome your comments on this post, and on the whole subject of dealing with regret.

    Wishing you every good thing on your  personal journey to wholeness,

    Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst


    PHOTO CREDIT: © Guy Allard |

    © 2010 Brian Collinson

    1. jamenta


      August 14, 2010 at 4:36 am -

      Perhaps the big leap of faith with Jung is he wants us to subscribe to the basic idea that we each have a meaningful life and we each have unique destiny that is not just a mere biological accident (nor is life a mere mechanistic accident).

      It is one thing to read about this, and go to church on Sundays – and even wake up each morning and write down an image or two in an attempt to really believe in meaning.

      Another to write a Red book, carefully note synchronistic phenomena in one’s life and that of your patients – and really allow yourself to believe that you do have a destiny! No matter how much regret and sorrow has been visited upon you.

    2. jamenta


      August 21, 2010 at 2:19 pm -

      It is a question I have been grappling most of my life and still grapple with today – despite ample writings by Jung, FW Myers and others – who observed events do happen in individual’s lives that cannot fall under strictly causal or coincidence …

      And yet I still can’t excise the strong alternate belief within me – perhaps ingrained into me in my youth – that I am just a product of my brain, death is indeed the end, and for many – life is a lot of pain and suffering and poverty without any reason or rhyme. A tale of sound of fury signifying nothing … so to speak. heh.

      It is easier to believe life is just random and meaningless when you are enduring quite a bit of suffering (especially loss or regret). Certainly one of the purposes of many religions was to explain suffering, and Jung also felt it was an important question that needed to be answered (and he did so with his Answer to Job – which I have yet even to read). Why indeed suffer if none of it means anything? What is the sense of it?

      Those who perhaps are not required to endure heavy suffering via their fate – I believe also – may find it easier to simply ignore the larger questions of life and the actual fact that this universe exists – and/or find it easier to believe we live in a friendly universe.

      FWH Myers felt that was one of the most important questions that needed to be answered in his research of the unconscious and psychical phenomenon “Is the Universe Friendly?” He felt that if death truly were the end that the answer was a definite no.

      However he eventually near the end of his life felt that the Universe is indeed friendly – despite the tears and the pain many of us our fated to endure.

      There is much to hope for – and maybe a promise does lie deep within us – despite what we may have to face – even death of our known life right now – for hopefully a new life and new horizon.

      1. Brian C
        August 23, 2010 at 9:44 am -

        I can appreciate your concerns. These are issues that I myself have thought about a great deal for a very long time. I think that one of the most important things to be said is that the resolution to these questions on an intellectual, theoretical or philosophical level eludes humanity, and has always done so. We simply aren’t going to be able to think through these issues to an intellectually satisfying conclusion — if the intellect is the only function or tool that is to be applied to the solution of the problem. We don’t have that capacity, and the universe is not that comprehensible, in conceptual terms.

        However, in my opinion, it would be a serious mistake to think that mechanistic materialism offers a view of the world that has all the difficulties sewn up. If we move away from a 19th century materialism, in which matter is some solid “stuff” that acts in always-predictable ways, to a later 20th or early 21st century point of view based on the current status of the science of physics, it is apparent that we have no concept of what matter-energy is in and of itself. As string theory and M-theory show, it is now impossible to have any actual concept of what matter is, in and of itself. As no less an authority that Niels Bohr, of quantum theory fame has said, referring to subatomic physicists, “we are all doing metaphysics, now”. The mechanistic, deterministic worldview of a certain type of scientific materialist has dissolved into mysteries that are no less incomprehensible than those of any other philosophical position. We have no choice now but to confront the fundamentally mysterious nature of existence in general, and of human existence in particular.

        Some great minds think that the greatest and most fundamental philosophical question is this: “Why is there something, anything at all — rather than nothing?” This question is not an argument for the existence of God — none of those arguments really work any better than supposed philosophical disproofs of the existence of God. But what the above question shows is that existence is surrounded in mystery that we cannot penetrate with the intellect.

        We simply cannot find meaning or penetrate the fundamental nature of being with the intellect. On this level, we cannot base our view of the world on objective proof. We are thrown back onto our own subjective being.

        For some, it will be enough to say that life is random happenstance without any particular significance. In the words of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, “Life is a tale told by an idiot / Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

        I suspect though, that for the vast majority of people who are more or less self-aware, this particular account of life will be met with revulsion. For those of us who don’t accept that approach, life is filled with the journey and struggle to find personal meaning. I think, often, that the recognition that we can’t intellectually solve these questions forces us to seek for another level of understanding–in ourselves.

        Jung would tell us that the only level on which we can come to grips with an issue that is so fundamental is the level on which all four functions — thinking, feeling intuition and sensation — are united, and the transcendent function brings us a new way of apprehending reality in a symbollic form from the depths of the unconscious.

        I hope that what I’ve said here doesn’t sound glib or cavallier. This is a very serious matter, a very fundamental matter. It very often concerns deep, painful existential issues for people, and the individual character of such concerns are never to be ignorred, and are always to be taken with absolute seriousness. Nonetheless, I think that it is precisely as we wrestle with these issues that Jung’s perspective has the most to say to us.

        THis is the best I can do with these huge questions, John. I hope that you’re able to find at least some light in this. All the very best -Brian

    3. Charles Landman

      Charles Landman

      March 14, 2016 at 8:21 pm -

      I’m late to this conversation, and a bit disappointed that it seems your discussion of regret has reached an end. You have left us some tantalizing hints about how to begin to come to terms with regret, but not much of a roadmap. Perhaps that is as much as can be done.

      It does seem that regret comes in a variety of flavors; at least, we can distinguish between regret for things done, from regret for things planned or hoped for but not done, from regret for things not done that we now understand we could have done.

      I’m in the latter category. After sixty-five years of a roller-coaster life that included two reasonably successful careers, I have recently come to understand that I have lived my life unconsciously. Coming late to Jung et al, I realize that by not being able to interact with my unconscious, I have caused unnecessary harm to myself and others, and missed opportunities to fulfill what I might now think was my destiny. I apply the salve of the concept of “readiness”, but it is temporary relief. I know this is something deep and powerful, and I had hoped for more guidance. But perhaps, like so many things, this is yet another that we have to figure out for ourselves. At least, I have the concept of amor fati to muse on.



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