In my early teens, I was captivated by a verse I heard from the "Rubaiyat" by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam:
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
It conveyed — with an ominous tone — the relentlessness of time.
One can experience the time’s fearsome relentlessness in ways from trivial to grave.
• Like the baseball announcer who says of the pitcher, “He’d sure like to have that one back,” referring to the pitch the pitcher had just served up, unintentionally putting it into the sweet spot from which the batter had slammed it out of the park.
• Or when one wishes one could go back a few seconds and not have dropped the precious item, or not have lost one’s focus and cut oneself with the knife with which one had intended to cut only the onion.
• Or the moment of a fatal car crash. (If only one could do it over and live out an alternative history where a life would not be snuffed out!)
The movie "Groundhog Day" is perhaps my very favorite, as I love the way the “moving finger” refuses to “move on.” In "Groundhog Day," the protagonist is compelled to live the same day over and over and over until he gets it right—which ultimately entails a major transformation of the man’s character, a learning process that leads to a kind of redemptive saving of his soul.
And the pleasure of overcoming “Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” is part of why I’m so fond of another movie, "Déjà Vu."
In "Déjà Vu", technology enables the character played by Denzel Washington — who is investigating a terrible act of terrorism — to look back in time to see how it happened. As he does so, watching the doings of various relevant people in the recent past, he falls in love with an appealing woman whose dead body he has seen on a slab in the morgue. Then, when a tweak in that technology enables him to actually go back in time, he is able to rewrite what Time has “writ,” averting the disaster, and saving that lovely woman’s life (as well as the lives of hundreds of others).
There’s so much fulfillment that comes from washing out the words that the moving finger had written, rewriting the script so that there is no need for those tears.
That same overcoming of the heaviness of “nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” is part of what I so enjoyed in a computer program I got involved with when I first started using the Internet.
It was an online chess program — Arasan was its name — that enabled one to play the game against a machine. Arasan let you choose your “opponent’s” level of expertise so that the match would pose the desirable level of challenge.
I would choose an opponent whose game was a bit stronger than mine. So it would often happen that I’d be compelled to see that I’d make a bad choice – i.e. one that, despite how I’d envisioned it leading to success, proved in time to lead instead to failure.
Here was the great thing: the game provided a button that fulfilled that desire to “lure back” what the moving finger had writ, and do things differently. That button enabled one to return — move by move — to that fork in the road where one had chosen wrongly, and to take a different path into a different future! (The “moving finger” was no longer so relentless in moving on.)
By going back in time, I could erase the future in which the machine beat me, and possibly create instead the future in which I defeated the machine.
Those were good exercises: backing up to where the wrong choice was made, in order to make a better one, provided training on how to judge among options. If I worked at it, I could learn about how it came about that I misjudged the first time.
That experience got me thinking about how one might gain wisdom in the real world, i.e. in that world where one cannot go back and “cancel half a line” of what’s already happened.
What I came to understand might be called, “The Value of Regret.” Or at least its potential value.
That value certainly doesn’t lie in eating one’s heart out over those saddest words of tongue and pen, “What might have been.”
Rather, the value of regret lies in how — once one has recognized the wrongness of a choice — one can go back and learn how to judge better.
Even if one cannot cancel half a line of what the moving finger wrote, one can work to become wiser so that — in future situations like the one where one previously made a decision one came to regret — one will be more likely in the future to make the right choice.