The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
How true, these words of Omar Khayyam. Few of us there are who would not cancel more than "half a line" of our past if we but could.
The bitterest remorse is, of course that felt concerning someone who has left this world. We can always make amends to the living, but the dead are beyond recompense in this lifetime. Ironically, often we do not realize the wrong we have done until years later, when life has taught us lessons in understanding both of ourselves and of our fellowman.
Webster's definition of remorse is "distress, like gnawing pain, excited by a sense of guilt; repentant regret." But surely this haunting pang has its rise in some well-spring of our being far deeper than the mind and emotions. Could it not be the deep-seated urge toward equilibrium which resides in the heart of each of us — that which has the residual wisdom and knows that all wrongs must be righted, all unfinished causes balanced? Hence remorse is a sign that we ourselves wish to bring about that equilibrium.
Then, is not remorse a form of compensation? Surely few readjustments could be worse than that "gnawing pain" which our own conscience inflicts upon us. The recipient of a thoughtless or ignoble action may forget it sooner or later. It is the doer who really suffers in the end, the more so if he is of a self-searching disposition. Our conscience — that inner self — is an ever-vigilant reminder. Thus we actually hurt ourselves far more than we can hurt another.
As one writer remarks, this compensation "is not a cause for worry but hope, as it gives us the chance to right our wrongs." "But," he adds, "you mustn't ignore the other side, the good which you have done. Could there be any progress without it? Suffering teaches us compassion and tolerance towards others, not bitterness."
Remorse, though indeed a bitter fruit, is a mark of growth or evolution. For, to feel remorse at all, we must have advanced beyond that point in the past when we did the thing that today we wish undone. Even to recognize the wrong of some past shows a deepening of consciousness. It takes judgment and experience to detect flaws in our own character, and these attributes we must gain through evolutionary development. So let us not be led by remorse into a cul-de-sac of morbid, futile regret. This is the negative side. Rather, let us take the positive stand and recognize it for what it is — an awakening of a higher consciousness.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)