We all want to live well, being true to the life that makes the most sense to our hearts. It is the how to live well that is a challenge.
Working from her experience with those near death, a former palliative care nurse wrote a bestselling book that is illuminating and instructive. The top five regrets of the dying came from Bronnie Ware’s observations during that time, and it led her to focus on how the rest of us spend our waking hours. Like Natalie Goldberg discovered in fighting cancer, Ware arrived at a simple yet challenging answer to the question of how to spend our time to avoid finding ourselves on our deathbeds with regrets for the life we’ve lived.
Face the fact that you are actually going to die one day and that your time is sacred.
We all live with a “terminal diagnosis.” The more awareness we can bring to this, the more it will support us to live well, instead of living a life dictated by others.
First regret of the dying: I wish I’d lived a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
My parents modeled this way of living, telling their five children that they would teach us their values but, as we grew into adulthood, each one of us needed to make choices to become the person we were supposed to be. Their willingness to let go without expectations led us all down different career and life paths: musicians, arts administrator, preservationist, planner, public servants, navy veteran, artistic blacksmith, missionary, authors, parents. It was a good start to living a life true to oneself. Both of our children are now following their passions, providing us with lessons from another generation.
Too many of us fear the risk of such an approach to living. Instead, we have learned to live our lives trying to satisfy other people’s demands. Ware notes that as our individual callings become more prominent, we come to realize that our “own beliefs and preferences may not actually be aligned to those you have been raised with.” There is a healing in this realization.
Second regret: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
My father loved being an engineer. But it didn’t define him. He wrote about this after he took early retirement and faced his third stage of life without the traditional comfort of being known for his job. Fortunately, his way of living already included what today we call work-life balance, and he moved confidently out of a full-time career into a very productive and satisfying three decades of retirement.
Ware notes that dying people who have this regret learn too late that there needed to be more in their lives than work. When work was taken away from them, “there was nothing left: no identity to support them, no stimulus to inspire them, no joy.”
Third regret: I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
When I was a child, I had no problems expressing my feelings. I laughed when I felt joy, cried at pain, and delighted in new discoveries. Most young children experience a similar life of wonder. But along the way, we are taught how to suppress our feelings as part of learning life skills to navigate challenges and see different perspectives.
Many of those skills are useful, Ware writes, but “some of them hinder your natural expressions, until over time, you think it is normal to never be vulnerable or express yourself honestly.” Too often we never summon the immense courage to express ourselves, “whether that is by being vulnerable and sharing your love, or being strong and sticking up for yourself. But it is absolutely vital to do so if you are going to live your fullest life.”
Fourth regret: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
This past Thanksgiving, we did what we have done for years: got in our car and drove 2 1/2 hours to spend the weekend with friends we’ve known for more than three decades. Yes, we have Facebook, LinkedIn, or text connections. But staying in touch is so much more than a “like” on a social media post. Our daughter Claire, who regularly makes time to get together physically and emotionally with friends she has known since grade school, has taught us how to live to avoid this regret.
“Real life connection is the essence of wellbeing. It is natural that some friends may fall away as your lifestyles and tastes change,” writes Ware. Yet dying people “regretted not staying in touch with their old friends, though, because during their last weeks they wanted to reminisce, laugh about the old days, feel understood, and remember they once belonged in an easier world.”
Fifth regret: I wish I had allowed myself to be happier
Happiness is a choice. For me, that choice came when I made the decision not to get stuck in old stories and to make the expression of gratitude a regular practice. We can all decide where to locate our joy and how long we focus on the unpleasant in life.
“Every time you take ownership of your focus and steer it towards something that leaves you feeling a little better, you are opening your heart and life up to more happiness. Life is not a penance. It is a precious gift of time.“
The late Italian-American philosopher Jim Valvano summed up his approach to living a happier and fulfilling life by saying that every day we should “laugh, think, and cry.” Think about it, he said. “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day, that’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
It gets late early out here. It is your life. Choose your own focus.
More to come…