We have all done things we regret, things we wish we could undo. And even when they are not a cause of lasting harm, these regrettable things are often a cause of lasting shame.
The Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly explores the theme of regret in his song, “If I Could Start Today Again”.1Through a pleasing fusion of lyrics and music, Kelly draws us into an experience of regret in all its aspects.
I wish I could write the tune into my essay as well as the lyrics. For, of course, much of the emotion of the song is bound up with the music. Nonetheless, the lyrics stand alone reasonably well and are worth pondering.
“If I Could Start Today Again” is Kelly’s lament over some wrong that he has done and longs to undo. The details of the offence are never mentioned. The whole focus is on the ongoing consequences. Verse by verse the song highlights various aspects of regret.
Kelly begins his song with an expression of weakness and inability:
All the kings and queens in the Bible
They could not turn back time.
So what chance have I of a miracle
In this life of mine?
This sense of helplessness is one aspect of regret. We feel powerless to set things right. We know it would take a miracle to undo the past, and we dare not hope for such a miracle.
In the next few lines, Kelly expresses a desire to turn back and begin anew:
I only want one day
To unsay the things I said,
Undo the thing I did.
This longing to start again is another aspect of regret. We yearn to have a second chance, to have another opportunity to do things differently. We want to reverse the things we did so that we can rectify the wrongs we caused.
In the remainder of the first verse, Kelly begins to plead with God:
Twenty-four little hours!
Oh God, please wipe them all away
And I promise I will change
If I could start today again.
This impulse to appeal to God for help is another characteristic of regret. Our powerlessness makes us long for someone who is powerful and our guilt makes us long for someone who is good. And that someone is God. His intervention is needed if matters are to be righted. Even those who do not believe in God often call out to him in their distress.
Kelly begins the second verse of his song with a justification:
I know I’m not the milk-and-honey kind.
Today I proved it true.
When the red mist falls around my eyes
I know not what I do.
This urge to make excuses is another aspect of regret. We try to lessen our suffering by lessening our guilt; and we try to lessen our guilt by lessening our responsibility. We tell ourselves and others that we could not really help what we did or said.
In the next few lines, Kelly attempts to reach a deal with God:
Please give me back today.
I won’t say the things I said
Or do the thing I did.
This inclination to bargain with God is another aspect of regret. We try to negotiate our way out of our dilemma. We offer God inducements to do what we want him to do. We promise him that we will do better in the future if only he will help us to set things right in the past.
In the remainder of the second verse, Kelly settles into sad introspection:
Every minute, every hour
The replay’s just the same
And I can’t stand the shame.
Oh, let me start today again.
This tendency to dwell on our offence is yet another feature of regret. We keep mulling over what has happened, and as we do so we feel an increasing sense of discomfort and disgrace.
In the third and final verse of “If I Could Start Today Again”, Kelly sinks into defeat:
I only want one day
One lousy day, that’s all,
Of every day that’s been before
Since time began.
I know my prayer’s in vain
So for a second I’ll pretend
That I can start today again.
This sense of resignation is the final aspect of regret. We give up any hope of actually setting things right. We abandon any thought that God will answer our prayers. And for solace we may even “pretend” that we can “start today again”. But such pretence lasts only “for a second”—and then the “replay” begins again.
Paul Kelly’s song is a masterful exploration of the emotion and psychology of regret. And like any fine song or poem, it draws us in. Indeed, by withholding the particular details of his regret, Kelly encourages us to remember the particular details of our regrets. In this way, his lament becomes our lament. He sings our remorse and yearning and shame.
“If I Could Start Today Again” moves us to feel sympathy for the singer and sadness for ourselves. But it does not offer us a solution. It draws us in but does not lead us out. It begins in helplessness and concludes in hopelessness. It leaves us with the impression that, except by pretence, we can never get free of regret.
Of course, Kelly has written a song, not a report. He is interested in feelings not findings. He is trying to voice the problem of regret, not solve it. Yet, for all that, he comes close to finding the solution. Indeed, the solution actually lies in what he began but abandoned. It lies in his plea, “Oh God, please”. For to get free of regret, we need to call out to God.
We intuitively know that God exists. We intuitively know that he has the power to help us. But what we do not know by intuition is whether or not he is inclined to help us. However, where intuition stops, inspiration starts. For God reveals his will in the sacred writings he inspired, the same writings Kelly mentions in the first line of his song.
The Bible teaches us that God personally cares for each one of us. And he invites and promises us: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you” (Psalm 50:15).2We should call upon God with humility and remorse, frankly owning up to our offences. We should not make excuses (“I’m not the milk-and-honey kind …”) or offer bribes (“I promise I will change/ if …”). We should acknowledge our guilt and admit we have nothing worthwhile to offer in return for his help.
God loves us and longs to forgive and restore us. To all who will hear he says: “Come now, let us reason together … Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
The means by which God cleanses our sin and settles our conscience is the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross to make amends to God for all the regrettable and reprehensible things we have thought, said and done.
When we listen to reason and repent of our wrongs we become receptive to more of God’s tender invitations and promises. Writing as God prompted them, the apostles Peter and Paul urge and assure God’s people: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7); “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
The good news is that we need not be consumed with regret. There is a “chance … of a miracle/ in this life of [ours]”—more than a chance, an assurance, in fact. God promises the miracle of forgiveness and peace to all who come to him through faith in his Son, Jesus.
Even for those who trust in him, God will not turn back time. But he will in time turn back the effects of our past wrongdoing. And he will in time turn back the selfishness in our natures that gives rise to the sort of words and actions that give rise to all our regrets.