When I suffer ennui, my thoughts break down to the level of words—like “ennui”—and I ruminate on the color and character of their meanings. Short and complicated words linger most. Lately I’ve been thinking about “rue.”
By the dictionary, “rue” is an exact synonym for “regret”: “to feel remorse or sorrow for.” If “rue” appeared on a vocabulary list at school, one of my students might ask, “Why do we need two words for the same emotion, why isn’t one enough?” which raises a bigger question, “How do I communicate how different regret and rue feel?”
Understanding sometimes means leaving home, and I could tell them to think about the word’s other manifestations in expressions like “you will rue the day” or the adjective form “rueful.” That might help, but only if they have rued the day or have felt the sort of regret for which “regret” is not enough. I could explain that rue is also a European herb similar to poison ivy that, medicinally, was sometimes used to abort pregnancies. They might derive an intellectual appreciation for the word’s history, but I wonder how much closer they might come to its implications.
Because rue feels like more than regret to me. I rue not calling my father the weekend before he died. It was on my to-do list, and I might have spoken to him one more time while his brain was unscrambled by pain. He might have understood at last how much I loved him. I rue the angry words I’ve said to my children they’ll likely remember always. I rue the crossroads where I took strange turns or decisions on the brink when I chose to leap or stay put when the other course was best.
My students would certainly understand some of that but might have to take my word for the rest. Words are like planets so thoroughly adorned with rings and satellites that they aren’t really one body. The invisible pull of matter, the tidal swings and peculiar confluences of position, the tugs of hidden motion—all conspire to create complexity impossible to communicate or understand. Words truly aren’t enough.
I’ve been cataloging all I rue. Perhaps it’s my age, but I sometimes feel as though I’ve awakened to find myself somewhere else. Most of what I discover is a happy surprise—please believe me, I do know how very lucky I am—but I also see disappointed hopes and begin to feel opportunities waning. Thoreau said, “To regret deeply is to live afresh,” and I still sense a new day in every realization. But I’m not so fresh anymore and sometimes feel worn out by countless resolutions to get-up-and-go, put everything behind me, and move on. Too often I’ve known I should and haven’t. I’ve got to change that.
Instead I rue. And it occurs to me that I shouldn’t share this emotion with students who believe one word enough, who believe and dream. I’ve wished for their remorse when they should feel sorry, but I’ve never wished for their rue.
Better to live with my own and seek a way forward.