Fatal egg by pleasure laid

In the fifth in our series on the emotions, Rose Shepherd considers remorse - gnawing pain of conscience, or pointless self-indulgence of the vain and insecure?
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I didn't say that, did I? I didn't do those things? Was that ghastly, inebriated woman really me? Three o'clock in the morning - both too early and too late to call up friends. I'll have to wait till 7.30 at the very least, before I drag them from their beds and beg their reassurances.

Oh, whip me, ye devils! Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur! Wash me in steep-down guilts of liquid fire! Stripe me pink with a bluebag!

I have been rude, objectionable, dislikeable. I have been all the things I daily strive not to be. I have added inordinately to the burden of regret I carry always, a mental store, my own Pandora's box of all the guilt and shame I ever felt. A hangover, at the very least, I deserve.

In fact, there is a remedy for the physical effects of over-indulgence, one of those sachets of powder which I always think of as remorse - "Remorse, the fatal egg by pleasure laid" - but which are actually, slyly named Resolve. Paracetamol and ascorbic acid or some such vile confection, ersatzy- lemony, suitably bitter, designed to get you on your feet in no time.

If only the emotions were so easily salved! For, as we know, those of us who experience it perennially - and not everybody does, apparently - remorse is the most intractable of emotions.

I am limping with remorse, riddled with its twin compo- nents, guilt and regret. The most trivial transgressions return to haunt me, looming quite as large as my most excessive crimes and misdemeanours.

Then, "I feel it all the time about all sorts of things," my friend Louise, a fellow sufferer, agrees. "Most especially about my mother, because I don't love her, I can't love her. There are things that she has done, that I should be able to forgive, but I can't, and I feel terrible about that."

And, "God!" says another friend, Ruth. "I'm always feeling it. I live my life in remorse. It has to do with being brought up in the Catholic faith. It's such an aspirational religion, you're taught to aspire to being perfect, and because you're not, you feel terrible. I'm so snappy and unpleasant to people, and I know I'm being like that. I have occasionally said awful things by accident and realised afterwards what I said, but that's not what makes you feel remorseful, it's when you've been wilfully beastly."

Say "remorse" to these women - sweet, kind, dutiful people who love their husbands, love their children, who live blameless lives - and they instantly and feelingly relate to the concept. Not so my partner. "Do you experience remorse?" I ask him.

"Hmm?" He's listening with half an ear - if that.

"Do you have remorse? Are you remorseful?"

"What about?" He glances up, genuinely uncomprehending.

"Well, you know. About anything? Ever? Please put that book down and give this some thought."

He closes his book, but ostentatiously marks the page with his thumb. "I don't think so. Not really. Why?"

Why? Why ? He wants reasons! I am tempted to let fly at him, "Because you broke the jug that belonged to my great-auntie Cissie - you broke it purposely. And you shouted at me when we missed the turn-off for Rugby when I didn't see the sign. And you didn't buy me anything on my actual birthday. And you were grumpy all day Tuesday, and blamed me for throwing away the sink plug." We remorseful types, you see, are good at reprehension; also, we're very big on blame - if we have a message for the world, it is "Apologise!" - and any or all of the above would seem to us to merit a twinge or two of contrition.

Louise's husband, Rob, however, is adamant. "Remorse is pointless self- indulgence. What's done is done. You can't change it, so why worry about it? You have to move on."

My partner, although a good man and a kind one, is Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad, he can be perfectly bloody. And Rob, although no unregenerate villain, is the archetypal lovable rogue. Yet, while Louise and Ruth and I and all our ilk are consumed by self-reproach, these two can recall not an ounce of compunction. Weird, or what?

I'm not saying here that women feel remorse while men do not. These men don't feel remorse is all I'm saying - or, if they ever felt it, they've forgotten it. Other men, as we know, suffer it on an epic scale, they weep and gnash, pluck out their eyes, fall on their swords and all sorts. If, in my "researches", I found it harder to elicit true confessions from men than from women (see right), if they talked more in general than particular terms, if they rued what they had not done more than what they had (like Sir John Betjeman, who famously expressed regret that he hadn't had enough sex), it is probably because they're not so in touch with their emotions (an exchange of cards at Christmas is the most that some of them can manage).

No, the point is that there are those - men and women alike - who will die in contumacy. I mean, truly. They don't give a bee's fart. Yet remorse has a function, surely? The word means not just bitter regret for wrong committed, but compassionate reluctance to inflict pain or to be cruel. Only psychopaths, surely, are strangers to remorse.

So what, if not remorse, distinguishes Rob, or Dick, or Harry, from Genghis Khan or Hitler or Attila the Hun? The blessing of sanity, I suppose. Balance. Reason. Realism. Irreverent humour. A manageable ego. Independence of spirit. Rob makes his own rules, bends and breaks them at will. He is true to himself. And, like my partner, he is deeply unconforming. Not much got past them in their growing-up years, and still today they question the social mores that we tend to take as gospel. (Heaven knows, they don't even take the Gospels as gospel!)

We human beings, alone of all creatures, have concepts of right and wrong, good and evil. Yet human remorse is not innate, it is insidiously taught, taken in with mother's milk, if you can imagine such a thing! And some of us receive more than our share. We each come equipped merely with the possibility of remorse, then we learn what parents, teachers, society expects of us, we learn to respond to all manner of explicit and subliminal inducements and deterrents, we learn to crave love and approval, and mostly we want to be right and good, mostly we are complaisant.

It is not remorse itself, so much as the fear of the pain of remorse - the heartsickness, the mental turmoil, the dizzying flashbacks, the hot flushes - that informs our actions. Remorse is, in other words, a rather less laudable, less noble, more needy emotion than the remorseful might care to believe.

Remorse is oddly ambiguous, having aspects of grievance, and it is vain in more senses than one. It is all to do with self-regard - it is a massive failure of self-love, the crashing realisation that one is not, after all, the smartest, most admirable, darlingest individual in all creation, the appalling apperception that not everybody likes us, nor have they cause to do so. And it is an exercise in futility - for what could be more futile, frankly, than to fret about things said and done half a lifetime ago, affronts no doubt long forgotten by the affronted?

Penitence should prevent us from repeating our mistakes. The apprehension of compunction should discourage us from doing serious wrong. But where is the sense in returning time and again to one's guilt like a dog to its vomit?

Besides, much of the time, when we say we feel remorse, we are actually engaging in extenuation - justifying ourselves to ourselves, shifting the blame - or in wishful thinking ("If only I hadn't done that!") Meanwhile, we probably cause more hurts through inadvertence than we ever guess at.

It is an intimation of guilt and remorse, I always say, that prevents me from driving. I have a licence but no car. If I were to run down and kill a child, the argument goes, I would never get over it. I would never get over it. Forget the parents of the putative child. Forget the child itself, who has no more reality to me than a crash dummy. I just will not risk my own emotional well-being. Conscience may not make cowards of us all, but it has made one of me.

I am mindful of a man I once worked with, whose wife had been killed when he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a wall. It nearly wrecked him, he suffered almost untenable remorse for years, often felt suicidal. With every anniversary of her death - although a little less with the years - he would be quite deranged with guilt. It was not until her parents made contact - they had avoided him after the accident; could not bear him in their presence - that he was really free. They told him they forgave him absolutely. This was what their daughter would have wanted.

Another lesson learned in childhood: remorse can be assuaged by punishment or absolution. Hence the perpetrator of a crime or misdemeanor can find him- or herself at the mercy of the victim. A neat reversal, indeed. Boots and other feet spring to mind.

My father never held with apologies, not for the reason expressed by P.G. Wodehouse ("The right sort of people do not want them and the wrong sort take mean advantage of them") but because he considered them valueless. Sorry was not, he held, the hardest but the easiest word. When we say sorry we say "pardon me", "forgive me", or, as it might be, "pity me", "indulge me". He chose not to grant such indulgence.

As a child I found this frustrating. There existed this formula, this magic incantation, and it wouldn't work on him. Since then I have come to respect his view - although I will still have recourse to apology when I think it will get me off the hook, make me feel better, win someone over. When he died, I felt ineffable sadness, but, for once, not a pang of remorse. I am grateful to him for his insistence upon intellectual and emotional honesty.

Another of my friends, Gillian, whose husband died suddenly at the age of 44 - he kissed her goodbye, went off to work, had a massive heart attack on the train - was devastated by her loss, but suffers no remorse. "People say we were such a close couple, they don't know how I can bear it. But it is because we were so close that I can. Every day, I told him I loved him. I had no secrets from him, nothing to feel guilty about. His sister, with whom he'd had a bit of a falling-out, was in rather worse shape than I was. I don't know how I could have borne his death if my grief had been complicated by shame."

Gillian has regrets, of course. She regrets that Paul was not around to see their elder daughter married, regrets that he will never know his grandchildren. But regret - sighing after what might have been - is a more bitter-sweet, supportable emotion than remorse, against which she was proof, thanks to perfect love.

How can they endure their remorse, those who do terrible wrong? If some of us can feel bad because we ate more than our share of vol-au-vents at a friend's ninth birthday party, how can murderers live with themselves? Or maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe what we need to know is: how can anyone so lack remorse, that they commit these acts?

Then, what do we want from our hate figures? Not, certainly, in my view, a long piece of self-justification in The Guardian, such as we had from Myra Hindley, in which she preferred the word repentance to remorse (it has a rather grand, bibilical ring to it). I should prefer that she effaced herself, to spare the parents of her victims sight of her. And there are many, certainly, who would wish her to efface herself utterly, to wipe herself out. Yet, contrarily, when Fred West hanged himself, there was a feeling that he'd sort of cheated justice. He should have stayed around and faced trial. We wanted him to suffer more.

Ultimately, remorse is of limited worth. It is a whingeing, cringing, backward-looking, obsessing emotion, and is, one way or another, frequently out of scale. As for sorry. Sorry is for serial adulterers, sorry is for wife-beaters (aren't they always sorry - until next time?)

I wish I could be more like Rob, make my own rules, be more free, less dependent on the good opinion of others, less cast down whenever that is forfeit. Oh, to have balls and a brass neck!

Rose Shepherd's latest novel, 'The Love of a Bad Woman', is published by Mandarin

I feel so awful about it, I really do ...

Caroline, 53

I was terribly remorseful when I was about 20, after I sent my boyfriend to the launderette to do my washing so that I could go out with his friend. I felt very guilty afterwards. I thought, "We're always complaining that men are shits, and there was I being a shit." Then I thought it served him right for being such a doormat.

Rodney, 55

What exactly is remorse? I don't really know what it means. No, I don't feel it a great deal. Could it be that there's some defence mechanism preventing me from feeling it. I do remember, when I was at school, I once got very angry with another boy, we got into an argument, and I never spoke to him again, although we were both there for the next five years. My reaction was totally over the top, I felt bad about it, and then I just didn't know how to reconcile it. I didn't feel remorse when my father died because I had such a good relationship with him. I do feel remorse in relation to my mother, but my regrets are all to do with the things I haven't said. When she says to me, "Look at you, you're useless, couldn't even find a woman to marry you," it's been on the tip of my tongue to say "When I look at you, it's enough to put me off marriage." My remorse is that I haven't said it.

Viv, 34

I always had pets, always loved them, but when I was about nine or 10 I had a guinea pig, and somehow I never really cared about him. I can't even remember his name, which tells you something. The hamster was Oscar, the goldfish was Clarence, the dogs were Barney and Pickles, but the guinea pig I forget. His cage was down the bottom of the garden, and being a lazy little girl I couldn't be bothered to go down there regularly. I didn't clean it out as often as I should have done and the bedding was all maggoty. We gave him away in the end to another child who wouldn't neglect him. I still feel terrible about it. That guinea pig's soul is still around, somehow.

More recently - last year, in fact - I did something which has caused me a lot of remorse. It was meant as a joke, but it went wrong. I sent a postcard from Spain to this guy at work, really to thank him for a favour he'd done me. It was fully of saucy double entendres. Anyway, his wife found it and read it and jumped to the wrong conclusions. I wish I hadn't sent that card! I wanted to phone her and explain, but I was afraid I'd only make it worse. There is nothing I can do, and that's the worst of it.

Colin, 60

I was evacuated to a farm during the war. I was miserable there. I missed my parents. I didn't fit in. One day I was running along, and there was a chicken pecking at the grit, and I trod on its head and killed it. It was like a horror story. It took me a long time to get over that. Nothing I ever did since then made me feel so bad.

Jane, 29

I was in Golders Green and a man dressed as a milk shake came up to me and tried to hand me a leaflet. I told him to "f... off and get a life". I felt dreadful afterwards. He was only trying to earn a living. It's a rotten job but someone has to do it.

Sylvia, 42

I felt terrible recently because of the way I treated my brother. He has made a mess of his marriage, he had lost one job after another, then he got religion. He came and told me he was a born-again Christian. He wanted me to be pleased with him, but I was dismayed. I had been watching him rebounding from one thing to another, I thought this would be just another nine-day wonder, and in the meantime he seemed quite unbalanced. I wasn't sure that it would do him any good. Maybe I'm wrong.

David, 44

I feel remorse almost all the time - remorse about almost everything. I feel remorse about things I've not done that would have benefited me, remorse about things I've done to others, remorse about my parents ... I'm half Jewish, you see, so I have guilt about family, that's par for the course. I can't imagine life without remorse, it would be thin, unconvincing. You wouldn't get many novels without it. Where would the great Russian novels be ? What is Crime and Punishment about if not remorse? One's teenage posturing, how stupid one was, how one wasted that time, is a source of infinite remorse.

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