Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Living Without Regrets

I started this post at the beginning of the summer, when I was about to turn 28 and was feeling introspective. So, in the spirit of starting to ponder what I'm going to have to show for the decade of my twenties, I bring you: the Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Bronnie Ware is a nurse who worked with patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives. She talked to them about what they regretted, and as she wrote down their responses, she noticed that many of them shared certain themes. Some of them are the things you'd expect—people wished they had kept in touch with friends, worked less, etc. But overall, this list struck me because there's a very specific theme to it, and I've actually heard people mention the list without recognizing that theme. 

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

"This is a surprisingly common one. Many... 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."

I find this particularly poignant, because it's something we all do to ourselves—we get familiar with things, with situations, and we just hang on to them because they're what we know. So, so much happiness is missed by thinking, probably subconsciously, that what we already know is best just because we already know it. So much happiness is missed by making choices based on fear. And since these motivations probably are subconscious, the only way to combat them is to make it a point to shake up our routine every now and then. Try something new just to try something new. When we encounter an old belief, take it out, examine it, and see if it's really something we want to keep. I want my life to flow, to feel alive. And there's nothing more central to life than newness and change.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

"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."

As someone who knows perfectly well that she sucks at long-distance communication... Yeah, I feel this. What is important in life if not the people we care about?

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." 

Honestly, expressing your feelings doesn't seem like something that should require so much courage. But it really does. Because expressing your feelings means believing that you deserve to be heard, even if someone else won't like what you have to say (even if you know they won't like it). It means knowing that you're not responsible for how other people respond to you. It means believing that your opinion, your voice, your experience, is worth as much as anyone else's. Sometimes this is a hard thing to believe. (Other times, it's not hard enough. ;) )

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."

This one's tough, because... Money. We all have to have it. For some of us, working less isn't an option, and I feel like that needs to be acknowledged. The balance between a comfortable life and a meaningful one is so difficult to find, and is largely a matter of privilege. But if we have the opportunity to cut back on how much we work, we may be able to use that time and energy instead to pamper our relationships, to fulfill some of those dreams we've been neglecting, to explore and appreciate the world around us. If we're privileged enough to have the option, sometimes we'll discover that we can be happy with a lot less. I guess that's because less of one thing means more of something else... And maybe it's the something else that would make our lives more meaningful.

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."

I find this idea both liberating and terrifying, mostly in two parts. The idea of not experiencing my dreams, especially because of my own choices... That's terrifying. So much freedom, and so much responsibility. I have so many dreams. But living true to myself instead of the way others expect me to live—this is liberating. Learning what is important to me, not what I've been told should be important—that's the most amazing feeling in the world. 


So have you noticed the theme? It stuck out to me, but that might be because it's been the particular theme of my life for the last few years. Number one really sums it up: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."

When people were about to die, they regretted having spent their lives doing what they thought they were supposed to do instead of following their own hearts. This isn't to say that those people were constantly unhappy; in fact, I'd guess they probably weren't. Many of them had probably built good lives and had some wonderful relationships and happy times. But you can have a pleasant life without having a fulfilling one. You can be content without being truly happy. You can be comfortable without living your dreams.

I think if we're going to learn from the example of those who've come before us, we need to invest some real effort into finding out what we really want, what we really believe about life. For so many reasons, that is not easy. How do we learn those things? What if we don't have the resources to fulfill them? What happens when people around us don't like the paths we choose?
"We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come... There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold."
The actual quote—from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera—goes kind of bleak from there ("And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?"). I see it, instead, as all the reason we need. We can never know what we want, so if we think we want something, we should go try it and find out.

The people around us won't always like it. Everyone's version of a fulfilling life is going to look different, but humans are a clannish species; we like everyone in our clan to be the same, and we don't like it when someone breaks the norms. For many people, being true to themselves means breaking the norms. Then there's our own fears to overcome, and insecurities about what we're capable of. Living without regrets isn't easy (which is probably why number five was such a common answer). But, as cliche as it is to say this, we only have one life. If we waste it on fulfilling others' expectations, we won't get to go back and do it our own way. And if Bronnie Ware's experience tells us anything, we'll end up regretting it when it's too late to change.

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