Gratitude and Regret

“Dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is more powerful than gratitude”

Anne Frank

These words, written by the German-Dutch diarist Anne Frank were brought to my attention earlier this week. I found them arresting and started me wondering as to why, if true, such a thing might be so. Not many of us can honestly sing along with Frank Sinatra and claim that our regrets are ‘too few to mention’ and neither, surely, would anyone join with Edith Piaf and genuinely claim ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. On the contrary, for there are things in all our lives that we wish were not, things we wish had never been, and things we wish we had never said or done. And there are things that have happened to us or to those we love, things that we continue to bitterly regret ever took place.

But why might it be then, as Anne Frank suggests, that regret is more powerful than gratitude in provoking a response from us when gratitude is something that surely we have all also experienced.

I wonder if the answer might lie in what we have come to expect from our lives. Might it be that we too easily take for granted the good things in our lives, considering them as our right? Might we have become less grateful for them, less appreciative of the kindnesses we have been shown, all as a result of coming to believe, perhaps, that they are all somehow deserved? If so, might that be the reason why we feel less gratitude than we should, and why we may express our thankfulness less forcefully than we could?

In contrast, it seems, we tend to be more easily moved by those things we regret, those things which upset our rosy view of the world. Promised as we have been that, if we believe in ourselves and listen to our hearts, all of our dreams will come true, we have come to expect good things in our lives, that health, wealth and prosperity are there for us all to enjoy. But we have been lied to. And when the reality of the difficulties that invade all our lives can be denied no longer, when it is all too plain that both our lives and we ourselves fall far short of that ideal, we are startled into a response.

Despite the existence of both good and bad, we have tried to airbrush our view of life in an attempt to maintain the illusion that all will be well. So adept have our efforts been that, when pain and suffering inevitably comes, we are shocked, when sadness fills our lives we are surprised, and when death rears its ugly head we are overwhelmed.

And so it is then that we buy flowers – a reminder of beauty, a reminder of love, a reminder of life.

Anne Frank of course knew how hard life could be, spending two years hidden away in a secret annex in an Amsterdam house before being arrested by the Gestapo and eventually dying in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. She was just 15. And yet her writing reveals that, despite the horrors that she undoubtedly experienced, she knew what it was to be grateful. Without denying the bad, she was able to appreciate the good.

‘As long as this exists’, she wrote, ‘this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?’

Perhaps it was because she had learned that the good things in life were not to be taken for granted that she was able to appreciate those good things when she had them to enjoy. Perhaps, instead of allowing anger and criticism of others to flow so readily from within us when things go wrong, we could too. Perhaps we could be a little more thankful and appreciative than we are.

In these days of pandemic a doctors lot is not always a happy one, but neither of course are the lots of our colleagues, our patients, or indeed any of those who seldom, if ever, contact us. The truth is that life is difficult for everyone just now and it may well remain so for some considerable while yet. But ours is not the first generation to find it tough. And though the sky may well be full of dark clouds at the moment, they will, as they have before, one day part and the sun will shine once more. And when it does we will be grateful for its brightness and warmth, just as we can be grateful for all the many things, big and small, that we can take pleasure in today.

Despite, then, the universal nature of sadness, happiness can still be experienced alongside it. Perhaps it might even be true to say that we cannot fully know what happiness is without knowing the pain of sorrow and that sorrow itself requires the memory of the temporary nature of happiness for it to be fully experienced. If so then, if we are to be happy, it must be alongside our sadness. We dare not wait for the absence of sorrow before allowing ourselves to be happy. It is not that we can not be happy because we know sadness, nor that we can not be sad because there are things to be happy about. Paradoxically, we can be happy and sad at the same time.

Even so, as we wait for those infinitely better, brighter days that we all so long for, we would do well to take another leaf out of Anne Frank’s book where she quite rightly once wrote:

‘How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world’


To read ‘I’ll miss this when we’re gone’, click here

To read ‘General Practice – A Sweet Sorrow’, click here

To read ‘The Life I Lead’, click here

To read ‘Monsters’, click here

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