SHOULD YOU LISTEN TO YOUR DREAMS—OR CONFORM TO WHAT SOCIETY EXPECTS?
A FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION—PERHAPS THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION BECAUSE THE VERY CONDUCT OF YOUR LIFE DEPENDS UPON THE ANSWER.
Some time ago, I ran across the following piece in that excellent publication THE GUARDIAN. It’s a British paper which used to be called THE MANCHESTER GUARDIAN—but then went national, I’m glad to say.
Indeed, it is now somewhat international today. I don’t read it every day because my primary focus is on the U.S. (regardless of where I live) but I may mend my ways. The Guardian’s U.S. coverage is pretty damn good as well—and decidedly more courageous and in tune with my values (more or less)..
I was truly intrigued by the subject matter, “The Top Five Regrets of Dying.” When people are dying, they tend to tell the truth (so I’m told). How novel! Between outright propaganda and social convention, the truth is a far more elusive beast that we generally care to admit.
So, we don’t.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. "When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently," she says, "common themes surfaced again and again."
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."
The following are my observations on The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. I make them subject to the qualification that I may change them when I am sure that I am actually dying (as in the immediate and fairly certain process of—for instance, while the blade of the guillotine is actually falling..).
Just so you know, I had a bunch of ancestors guillotined during the French revolution. I don’t expect to die quite so dramatically.
1. I’ve had a difficult life in many ways—but I have few regrets. I have followed my dreams and I’m eternally glad I have.
2. I work phenomenally hard and wish I had worked harder and more effectively.
3. I have expressed my feelings to the people who have really mattered to me. Where others have been involved, I am mostly glad I held my tongue.
4. I have tried very hard to stay in touch with friends—above and beyond what is normal in some cases. I wish some of my closest friends had not died—too young.
5. I have a serious demeanor so often don’t look particularly happy—particularly when I’m thinking. Don’t be fooled. I have wanted an essentially cerebral life leavened with words, women, and wine—and that is mostly what I have had.
Of course, I do have some regrets, but far less than you’d think—or, probably, than people who think they know me think.
If you want to know what I really and truly think, read my books. My much commented sense of humor doesn’t come from a miserable heart. It is the manifestation of a happy one—because I love to write, and that is exactly what I do.