Regrets: I’ve had a few, but then again they stop me being a sociopathic monster

The capacity to feel debased by imperfection is an essential building block of what it means to be human

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The Independent Online

Since the dawn of humanity nothing, apart from Kriss Akabusi’s laugh, has been as reliably aggravating as the festival of smug self-regard officially known as the celebrity questionnaire. And when I say “since the dawn of humanity”, I mean that not only most sincerely, folks, but in the biblical sense quite literally.

Scriptural scholars, should there be any among so notoriously heathen a readership, will recall the following from the first ever celebrity interview, as featured in Genesis (ch 9, vs 11-12). “And the Lord did say unto Cain, ‘What wouldst thou vouchsafe, my child, as thy most grievous fault?’ And Cain did ponder this, and did say unto Him, ‘That if anything, O Lord my God, I care for my brother too much’.”

If subtly disguising a virtue as a failing is one of the genre’s three premier irritants, another is the claim – as made by 99.3 per cent of those featured in the Sunday Times’ “A Day In The Life” – to wake at 5am each morn, thus being fully sentient in good time for Radio 4’s Farming Today. In half a century, the feature has seldom unearthed a subject who doesn’t pride him or herself on being bang up-to-date with crop yields and fluctuations in the second-hand price of combine harvesters.

Yet it is the third and most egregious of the trinity that concerns us today. When asked to cite their worst regret, barely a soul in the annals of the questionnaire or interview has managed to dredge up one. If Nietzsche was right about the death of God (though as we will see, a certain Vladimir Putin disagrees with the old boy there), who the hell elected Edith Piaf to run the planet in His place?

The above-mentioned Russian leader was at it this week. Interrogated by a fiercely independent-minded interviewer preparatory to a jaunt to Italy, Putin was asked this. “Is there an action that you most regret in your life – something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again?” The lovable rascal pondered the matter deeply for a bit before his eyes lit up, the article relates, and he replied: “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.”

Before we continue, let me state that what follows implies no disrespect for Putin. That disclaimer is not born of cowardice. I’m as game for a refreshing one-way trip down a lift shaft as the next hack, and always happy to consider using a recherché radioactive isotype as a sugar substitute in tea. That said, Putin’s ritual failure to acknowledge one regret underpins the popular theory that exceedingly high achievement and a personality disorder go together like a horse and carriage. What brand of lunatic, after all, isn’t racked by regret?

Speaking as an exceedingly low achiever, I regret pretty much everything I have ever done… and that, though it remains early doors, without ever having posed topless on a steed or invaded the Crimea. While Putin sleeps the sleep of the pure, I am woken at 3.37am by excruciating memories which pierce the subconscious like polonium-laced shards of flint.

The one that roused me, sweating and pulling faces of self-hatred, earlier this week concerned a 1979 New Year’s Eve party at my godparents’ house, where my repulsive 16-year-old self found himself chatting up a beautiful dwarf. Insouciantly rocking back and forth on a chair in a bold attempt to impress her with man-of-the-world suaveness, I knocked over the pot plant that was my godmother’s pride and joy.

It was essential to repot the plant without delay, and to this end we raced to the garage for a garden tool with which to get fresh soil. I found a spade, slung it over my shoulder, and sang “Hi ho, hi, ho, it’s off to work we go.” While that would almost certainly have sufficed, some weird, self-destructive compulsion led me to remove any lingering doubt about the analogy. “I feel,” I added, “just like one of the Seven Dwarfs”. “So do I,” chipped in a very quiet, disconsolate voice, and though it was well before midnight, I headed for the front door.

Along with various other, equally inexplicable faux pas, the mind is tormented by countless failures of every kind as a father, son, lover and friend; by whisky-sodden rudenesses from long ago and casual discourtesies from last week. Those of you who have shown the tenacity to reach this far will appreciate that I have never written an article I didn’t regret, because it could and should have been better. The recollection of some (a needlessly brutal television review in the 1990s that seriously distressed a young playwright) sends the stomach acid rushing up to the gullet. Every cold call from a charity is a rebuke that I should give more, every ludicrous investment (putting the pension into the Pacific Rim a week before it crashed, lumping £500 on Argentina to win the 1994 World Cup the night before Diego Maradona was done for steroids) a monument to incalculable idiocy.

One of the very few things I do not regret is being tortured by regrets. The capacity to feel debased by imperfection is more than an essential building block of whatever it means to be human. It is the braking system that stops us from ploughing headlong towards realising our potential to be a monster.

When neuroscientists find a way to use MRI to locate the part of the brain that responds to regret, they will be able to identify a sociopath by the lack of any reaction. Ask a normal person about the time she screamed obscenities at the mini cab controller who said the car was at that very moment turning into her road, when it was in fact stuck on the outskirts of Baltimore, and the relevant cerebral cortex will light up red and yellow like a Spanish flag. Ask Tony Blair about civilian deaths in Iraq – and nothing.