I read somewhere once that the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that an optimist thinks setbacks are natural and temporary, whereas a pessimist thinks that any setback will have permanent negative repercussions. Then I read today an interview with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who says that hope is a whole 'nother animal from optimism. He said that optimism is a much lighter thing than hope, that "hope is the ability to see that there is light despite of all the darkness." I suppose perhaps that means that the optimist knows there will be light again, but the hopeful can see it.
At any rate, I suspect that both the optimist and the pessimist as well as the hopeful and the hopeless know regret. I suppose that the pessimist imagines that for which he or she feels regret is going to somehow permanently mar the future and perhaps the optimist knows that regret too shall pass. (Which reminds me of Elizabeth Bennett's father in Pride and Prejudice.) But still there are times when one simply looks back in regret and wishes things had turned out differently, or that one had said this instead of that, or reached out instead of withdrawing, or played more, or danced, or drunk the champagne, or not drunk the champagne.
I don't think experiencing regret is a bad thing. We ought to regret some of the things we have done or left undone, and we may even regret things that don't even have anything to do with us. Experiencing regret can be the first step towards confession and reconciliation. It's staying there in that place of regret that is so discouraging. Living with regret as a constant companion makes one heavy and tired and lifeless; it leads to hopelessness.
And I suppose that hopelessness is when one looks back and only sees the things that one regrets. Only sees the shoulds and the oughts. Only sees the failures of both commission and omission. And does not see the many, many other positive, or even neutral, things that make up our complex and interrelated lives. Does not imagine that there is anything but darkness and ruin.
I imagine we have all been there at one time or another. There are regrets I have never been able to completely let go of - even if I keep them locked away, they get out from time to time to prick at me again. Perhaps even Archbishop Tutu has felt keen regret. Somehow we have to remember to imagine that this life is bigger than our foibles and mistakes and shortcomings. To imagine that we are constantly being perfected as we live as God's beloved who have the permission and ability to mess up as well as to do well and be free. And to live in the wonder that God loves us despite ourselves, and thus, so should we.