Dealing With Regret: Insights From an Australian Novel

“There’s always a chance to start over” is a common message. It’s meant for encouragement, and plenty of times it’s accurate. People do often rebuild their lives after an abusive relationship or a job loss or an illness. Their life may not look exactly the same, but it can wind up being better in a number of ways.

Other times, there’s no fresh start, not in the way one hopes for. A missed chance is gone. An opportunity won’t return. There are limits to the ways in which we can start over.

Regret naturally follows. And regret can throw up a wall around you, keeping you locked up with your past, tormented by “what-ifs,” and unable to perceive present and future possibilities.

Insights From Tirra Lirra by the River

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Last year, I read Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson. As a young woman, the main character, Nora, jumps at the chance to leave the backwaters Australian community where she grew up. As an old woman, she returns and wonders whether leaving had been the right decision after all.

Nora has a gift for art. In various ways, she draws on her artistic skills after leaving home, but towards the end of her life she also thinks that she would have grown more as an artist had she stayed.

Throughout her life, she suffers various heartbreaks, including a wretched marriage. After her marriage, she wonders if some paths are permanently closed to her:

I knew that like fruit affected by a hard drought, I was likely to be rotten before ripe. Sometimes I believed it was already too late, but at others I was seized by a desperate optimism that expressed itself in spates of chatter and laughter and hectic activity.

But it would be wrong to say that her life has been devoid of joy, interest, and friendship. And this is what brings me to the main point – What insights does the novel give us about dealing with regret?

Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity

Nora may feel angry, crushed, or terrified at various times in her life, but she doesn’t indulge much in self-pity. She also doesn’t try to sugar coat reality. Her retelling of her life has a clarity and straightforwardness that’s admirable. She can also take on a wry tone, finding absurdity in depressing circumstances.

She isn’t invulnerable to despair. But her general level-headedness is a way of dealing with regret and getting on. She doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against fate. She doesn’t lie to herself and pretend that everything is ok when it’s not. And – this is also important – she doesn’t pretend that something isn’t good enough when in fact it’s quite lovely and inspiring. Without being sentimental, Nora can appreciate what’s good.

Avoiding what-ifs

Nora has her “what if” moments during the book. But for the most part, she doesn’t dwell on alternate scenarios or choices left unchosen. She also doesn’t waste mental energy on “should haves” or “shouldn’t haves.” (“Things shouldn’t have turned out like this!”) Whether they should have or not isn’t really something we can fully understand or control. Things are as they are; hard work and powerful hopes don’t guarantee certain outcomes. Sometimes we do have the power to change things, but not always, or not to the extent we like. We face our circumstances, make various choices, and that’s it.

Seeking beauty

With her artist’s eye and her powerful determination, Nora does find beauty in all kinds of situations:

In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly. At times it was a whole room, but at others, it may have been only a corner with a handsome chair, or a table and a vase of flowers. Once, it was a bed, a window, and a lemon tree. But always, I have managed to devise it somehow, and no doubt I shall do it again.

This skill in seeing beauty has been with her all her life. For instance, when she was younger:

I was amazed and enthralled by the thickness and brilliance of the stars, by the rich darkness of the sky, and the ambiguous peacefulness of the blazing moon. In an aureole of turquoise the moon sailed across the sky, and as I watched, our block of land became a raft and began to move, sailing swiftly and smoothly in one direction while the moon and clouds went off in the other.

And when she’s an old woman:

… at the other end of the veranda, I can see the dark leaves climbing one behind the other, casting on the timber a shadow perforated by tear-shaped fragments of sunlight.

This ability to perceive beauty in various forms and make space for beauty even in the middle of pain or misery, is a potentially life-saving skill. And it can certainly help temper regret.

Narrative Point of View (POV): A Lesson From Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. What POV should you choose? Should it be a first-person narration (the “I” or “we” POV)? Or some form of third-person POV (using “he/she/they”)?

There are many reasons to choose one type of POV over another, or even to mix multiple types of POVs in a single work. One example comes from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which is set during the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. The novel is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different kid from a fifth-grade glass in an Atlanta elementary school. These kids are struggling with personal problems unconnected to the serial murders going on around them, though the murders will also change them in profound ways.

For each of the three kids, Jones uses a different type of narrative POV: third-person, second-person, and first-person. I don’t know what led her to choose a certain POV for a particular kid, but I’m going to post my own reasons for why I think the choices work well.

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LaTasha Baxter: Third-Person POV

Tasha gets the third-person POV – what’s more, it’s a third-person limited POV. In her section of the book, the reader can experience only what she experiences. None of the action takes places without her present, and the feelings described are only hers (though of course you can guess what other characters are thinking/feeling based on body language, word choice, and other clues). She doesn’t speak in the first-person “I,” but she’s the focus of this part of Leaving Atlanta, and the reader is meant to stick by her side through the events.

I think this POV suits her because she’s an “everyman” character. She isn’t the smartest or most successful student, but she isn’t struggling and failing either. She isn’t the prettiest girl in her class, but she isn’t considered ugly, though she’s sometimes taunted about her looks. Her family is neither the richest nor the poorest among their acquaintances. She definitely isn’t the most popular kid or even among the chosen circle of popular kids, but she also isn’t the class pariah. Although she’s capable of cruelty or thoughtlessness (usually when she cares too much about what the popular kids think), she isn’t mean for the sake of being mean; she isn’t a bully. Her concerns and hopes are typical for a kid her age, and her middling social standing gives her a vantage point from which she can observe a range of kids in her class, including the ones who are regularly trodden on. The reader can easily observe things alongside her.

Rodney Green: Second-Person POV

The second-person POV uses “you.” (From the book: “As you chant nursery rhymes to distract yourself from the news report, Father stacks his breakfast dishes in the sink and shuts off the radio.”)

Rodney is a boy who’s regularly being judged and accused. Most painfully by his own father, but by many others as well. He has no friends and is considered an unintelligible weirdo; only one other kid (see Octavia, below) gets treated worse in class.

He fears scrutiny. He wants to be furtive and unnoticed. The “you, you, you” is like a drumbeat of accusations or a constant reminder that the boy can’t escape from someone’s critical eye. It creates an impression of a character being watched by someone who’s dogging his footsteps.

At the same time, the second-person POV also works because Rodney wants to be understood. It’s as if he’s appealing to the reader and trying to form a connection. He wants you, the reader, to put yourself in his shoes. (The stuff he goes through – you’re the one going through it too as you read the second-person POV.)

By the end of his section of the book, he’s given up on anyone ever caring enough to understand him.

Octavia Fuller: First-Person POV

Octavia, even more than Rodney, is the class pariah. She’s very poor and her skin is also darker than everyone else’s; her classmates, although they’re also black, have made her skin the butt of most of their jokes about her. Her school experience is one of perpetual shunning. Even Rodney is wary about openly associating with her. Aside from an older boy who lives in her neighborhood, no one has been consistently friendly to her.

Generally, Octavia is quiet. But in one scene, when a boy insults her openly, she fights back, lobbing insults and rocks at him. She carries around a lot of hurt and anger, but she isn’t defeated. She has a strength that carries her through day after day of mistreatment and disappointment. The first-person POV suits her, as she’s a person with a firm, distinctive voice and character. She’s also fairly isolated. In multiple ways, she remains apart from the crowd as an “I.”

Not Sure Which POV to Choose for Your Work?

Sometimes authors will try out different POVs for a particular character or story to see which one “rings true.” With each change in POV, the readers’ relationship with the characters and events will change.

Deficits in working memory – but not ADHD

The go-to diagnosis for kids who have trouble learning, focusing and following directions in school is ADHD. Even leaving aside official diagnoses, when we look at the way parents and teachers talk about these children, it doesn’t take long for ADHD to pop up as the label of choice regardless of the actual problem.

In The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg, the author points out that kids who have deficits in working memory may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD often have problems with working memory, but not everyone with working memory issues has ADHD.

What’s working memory? There’s a colorful description of it here: “your brain’s Post-it note.”

Working memory helps you retain and process incoming information, such as a set of directions with multiple steps, the thread of a conversation, unfolding stories, math problems and other academic exercises. Even if most of this information never makes it to your long-term memory, you need to hold onto it for the present time to carry out different tasks successfully.

You can see why kids with working memory deficits struggle at school. And given that working memory and attention are closely intertwined, the label of ADHD hovers over these kids. It doesn’t help that when kids are struggling with schoolwork and falling behind their classmates, they often get restless, act out, or let their attention wander – which further reinforces the notion in people’s minds that they have ADHD.

And in kids with both ADHD and working memory deficits, the concern is that people will focus on controlling (medicating) any hyperactivity, at the expense of addressing the working memory problems.

On Becoming a Person, Chapter 2 – How do therapists foster personal growth?

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What’s the best way to help someone develop intellectually and emotionally?

In Chapter 2 of On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers writes that it’s a mistake for a psychotherapist to relate to a client as a “case” or a set of problems to fix. Instead therapists should see each client as a whole person, and beyond that form a relationship with them in which they can free themselves of lies and psychological defense mechanisms and grow as people.

What kind of relationship is this?

Rogers characterizes it as one in which: 1) he’s genuine about his own thoughts and feelings; 2) develops an “acceptance and liking” towards the other person; 3) tries to understand the other person.

But he also writes:

I am by no means always able to achieve this kind of relationship with another, and sometimes, even when I feel I have achieved it in myself, he may be too frightened to perceive what is being offered to him.

What happens if a therapist genuinely dislikes a client? Cultivating an attitude of acceptance (discussed more in this earlier post and comment thread) can help override your initial impulse to try to fix the other person or shut him/her out for not being exactly like you. But beyond that? Under what circumstances – even with an attitude of openness, understanding, and genuineness – does a relationship just not work out between therapist and client?

And what about those clients who are “too frightened to perceive what is being offered”? Is the fear something they can work past in time with the therapist, or something that’s a precondition for therapy that they need to work through on their own? Also, fear isn’t the only obstacle standing in the way of a good therapeutic relationship; for instance I’m picturing someone malicious and manipulative, ordered to undergo therapy by a court. (Maybe fear of some kind can also lie at the root of malice and conscious dishonesty.)

Rogers also compares the kind of ‘helping relationship’ between a therapist and client to similar relationships that facilitate growth in people: parent-child, teacher-student, etc. Any relationship in which there’s growth needs to have genuineness, acceptance, and understanding. I’m inclined to agree with him, though each kind of relationship also has qualities that set it apart from others. Returning to the therapist-client relationship more specifically, how does a therapist become a “companion” to the client (as Rogers puts it) without over-stepping certain bounds? The therapist isn’t exactly a friend, or a parent, or a teacher really – or is the therapist something of each of these?

On Becoming a Person, Chapter 1 – What does acceptance mean?

When hearing people argue for ‘acceptance’ and ‘accepting others’ I’ve usually gotten the sense that they’re supporting a lazy relativism – all viewpoints are equally valid, all opinions have merit, all practices and beliefs are beyond reproach. I’ve rejected this idea of acceptance because it falls flat in the face of reality. In some situations you can disagree with people while seeing the merits in their argument, or accept that they have their own tastes and way of life. Other times this kind of ‘acceptance’ stems from laziness, dishonesty and indifference, and can lead to terrible problems if people use it to excuse or ignore destructive practices.

I’ve started reading On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist who broke away from both Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorist approaches to psychotherapy. In Chapter 1 of this book, which was published in the early 1960s, he brings up acceptance:

I believe that it is an increasingly common pattern in our culture for each one of us to believe, “Every other person must feel and think and believe the same as I do.”

And a few sentences later he writes…

Each person is an island unto himself, in a very real sense; and he can only build bridges to other islands if he is first of all willing to be himself and permitted to be himself. So I find that when I can accept another person, which means specifically accepting the feelings and attitudes and beliefs that he has as a real and vital part of him, then I am assisting him to become a person: and there seems to me great value in this.

Shifting away from the lazy relativism discussed earlier, the acceptance described here seems to focus on acknowledging that people’s beliefs/feelings/etc. are a real and valid part of them. It matters to them in some way. Maybe we completely disagree with what it is they’re expressing or we find it abhorrent, but we accept that it’s real to them.

We have a strong tendency to invalidate other people by pretending that what they think or feel isn’t real (“You can’t be serious,” we say, or “no one thinks that way” or “you’re lying”); we can even make up explanations to override them (“you don’t really feel like that, you’re just tired” or “you’re hysterical/emotional/unstable…”). Rogers writes that when he’s more “open to the realities in me and in the other person” he’s much more likely to listen and try to understand, instead of immediately leaping in to “fix things” or bend people to his own way of viewing the world.

I think this kind of acceptance is generally a good approach; it reduces the chances that we’ll steamroll someone with our own thoughts, manipulate them and tell them exactly what it is they’re thinking/feeling. It also resonates with some of my readings on mindfulness training and accepting the present moment as it is, with all of its positive and negative qualities (instead of avoiding reality or warping it with our own thoughts of what it should be like).

Then again, what do we do when we want to change ourselves or when other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors are destructive to themselves and to others? We can accept that what they’re doing is real and serves some important psychological need… but if they want to change and ask for help, how can we help them? Does the kind of acceptance described by Rogers in this chapter easily slide into the lazy relativism mentioned earlier in the post? I’ll keep reading more of this book (and more about mindfulness) to better understand (hopefully) how these ideas of acceptance interact with personal development and change. At least for now, Rogers writes that it’s a paradox:

Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.

Fearing the mind – some thoughts on “The Politics of Experience”

My background in psychology hasn’t included readings on psychotherapy so I’ve started checking out books on the topic and just finished R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience.

A few points that jumped out at me from Laing’s book:

1) We (by which he mostly means European/North American people) live in a society that doesn’t truly admit to the existence of a complex “inner world” of dreams/imagination/fantasies/etc. that have any meaning (he wrote this book in the 1960s but there’s relevance to that position today).

(I put “inner world” in quotations, because the boundaries between what goes on in our heads and what’s out in the world is blurry – even our basic perceptions of the external world are filtered through our brains, and our thoughts and mental processes alter the way we perceive the world, what we attend to, what we remember, etc. Laing makes a similar point about there not being a sharp divide between internal and external.)

2) We view people who have been diagnosed with mental illness as lesser and as Others; mental health professionals do their best to subdue and drug them instead of explore and understand their perspective.

3) We can’t help people thrive if we don’t see them as human individuals enmeshed in relationships with others and interacting with society, its institutions and culture.

The terrifying mind

Our mental landscape can be a scary place. Beautiful too, sublime, but also unpredictable, intense, and terrifying.

Laing quotes people who went through – and ultimately emerged from – psychotic episodes where they felt they were traveling back in time, touching other dimensions and planes of existence, encountering core truths about life that were transcendent and overwhelming. Along with confronting visions and wonders, people can easily lose themselves in this mental realm, which seems limitless and is shot through with darkness and terrors as well.

Even mental activity that’s more mundane is awe-inspiring – for instance, everyday acts of creativity: filling a blank page with words or images. From where did they come? What’s inspiration and creativity really? Furthermore (and this is something Laing doesn’t really go into) so many of our basic mental processes occur beneath our awareness, guiding our decisions and actions. Laing speaks in general about people in modern society being alienated from who they are, but how do we come to know who we are and why we choose to act as we do when so much of our brain’s activity is by necessity unfolding beneath our notice? (I say “by necessity” because there’s only a little we can attend to and notice at any given time – meanwhile our brains are gathering, sorting, processing tons of information about the world and matching up current happenings with memories of prior events.) I’m not advocating for a position where we dismiss ourselves as unknowable and leave it at that; but what does it mean to “know yourself”?

Somehow, our brain’s activities give rise to “the mind” – consciousness, imagination, intuition, reveries, rationality, rationalizations, recollections, etc. It’s wondrous and mysterious, and mysteries can be terrifying.

Stamping out the mind

Laing rejected explanations of mental activity and ‘mental illness’ (a term he doesn’t want to use) that are concerned only with external behaviors or that see people as isolated units. These days individuals get reduced to products of cell activity or to animals in the thrall of evolutionary drives. Everything else is treated as so much noise or explained away glibly. I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View now and there’s a passage that reminds me of this tendency to iron out the complexities of the mind and pretend its chaos is meaningless (a jangle of nerves):

Lucy faced the situation bravely, though, like most of us, she only faced the situation that encompassed her. She never gazed inwards. If at times strange images rose from the depths, she put them down to nerves… Once she had suffered from ‘things that came out of nothing and meant she didn’t know what’. Now Cecil had explained psychology to her one wet afternoon, and all the troubles of youth in an unknown world could be dismissed.

Psychology (and psychiatry) can be used, and have often been used, as a way to obscure self-knowledge and diminish people. Those classified as mentally ill are especially vulnerable to being treated in inhuman ways: drugged to the gills, incarcerated, subjected to abuse in the guise of treatment, and told they’re incapable of any valid perceptions of reality and meaningful experience. This approach to mental health is yet another way of dismissing the frightening complexity of the mind, rather than trying to understand and work with each individual as a person, which would take effort and a willingness to confront our vulnerability and our painful, puzzling, and beautiful experiences of life – or at the very least accept that they exist and aren’t meaningless.

If Laing sometimes writes as if he’s romanticizing psychotic episodes and their potential for exploring the mind, he’s balancing out other approaches that wipe away the mind’s messiness entirely, kill self-awareness, and diminish intimacy between people. One point he returns to over and again – and it’s worth making – is that when people do experience the world in ways classified as “mentally ill” (depending on the individual, he/she may not be actually ill, just labeled that way), they aren’t experiencing their mental illness in a vacuum. Their interpersonal relationships and the society they live in have an impact on the course of their illness, its manifestation, the potential for recovery and adapting to daily life, and whether or not they’re accepted as a person instead of an embarrassment and an upsetting reminder of how the mind dances beyond the reach of neat little labels and human control.

Social impact

An article I came across recently by Tanya Marie Luhrmann – Beyond the Brain – is well-worth reading and centers on the effects of social environment on people with schizophrenia, including the influence of other people’s attitudes and behavior. The bottom line is that the brain doesn’t operate in isolation; the same goes for the body as a whole, down to the activity in the most remote cells. We’re constantly responding to and interacting with our environments. While drugs can play a role in treatment of psychiatric illness, particularly of severe cases, drugs aren’t everything and don’t solve all problems. Same goes for looking at brain scans and pointing to patterns of brain activation. What do they tell me about what it’s like to be you? To think and dream and experience the world the way you do?

Luhrmann writes:

We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are.

We can’t fully know each other, but why pretend there’s nothing to know at all aside from relatively superficial qualities? What Laing seems to put forward in his book is a vision of psychotherapy where you aren’t trying to aggressively make people “normal” (whatever normal happens to be in a given society) but to be a guide to them, and to actually hear what they say about their experience of the world instead of dismissing it all as a mass of symptoms.

More unanswered questions

Laing’s book doesn’t really go into how these changes in treatment will be achieved practically (but he does suggest at one point that people who have gone through similar psychotic breaks or psychological experiences can help serve as guides and counselors).

As for his general view of a society in which people are alienated from themselves and from each other, it wasn’t clear what alternative he proposes: what’s an example of a society, in his view, that would promote better mental health and acceptance of different individual experiences? All societies are founded on compromises between individuals and agreements to abide by certain principles. What about personal relationships – what’s an example of a healthy parent-child relationship, for example? He doesn’t get into that; he says only that parents ‘murder’ various potentialities in their children and mold them to societal specifications. If he’s right, what’s to be done?

He points to instances in the past or in other cultures where individuals could explore alternate mental states (through drugs, fasting, etc.), but weren’t these people few in number? Sometimes their activities were sanctioned, sometimes they were revered, but many times they were considered dangerous or aberrant as well.

One person Laing writes about in this book who went through a psychotic episode and emerged from it intact said that the world became illuminated in new ways, even as he continued his day-to-day life with its dissembling and false faces. To what extent can a more transcendent experience of the world co-exist with the smaller, pettier interactions of daily life?

Laing asks at one point: If our society is so dysfunctional, why would we want to adapt to its ideas of normal mental functioning?