If anything can make us think about the way we live, it’s certainly reflecting on the way we’ll die. It’s not a glamourous discussion, but undoubtedly an important one. Bronnie Ware used to be a palliative nurse, caring for people who had between 3 and 12 weeks left to live. In her book of the same name (The Top Five Regrets of The Dying) she shares the most common regrets these people had. In this piece I want to focus on the preconceived ideas that lead to those regrets, so that you and I can bring more consciousness in the way we chose to live, and hopefully avoid the pain of having huge regrets when there’s no time left.
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 realize 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 honored 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 realize, until they no longer have it.” -Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying
Although this is regret #1, let’s not act like honoring your dreams isn’t the most difficult thing there is. Especially when you’re only working with a vague sense of unease in your life, and aren’t necessarily sure what you would see yourself doing other then what you’re currently doing.
It’s tough to even define what it means to live true to yourself. Does it mean only accepting to do things that you find enjoyable, all the time? Hmm.. well you know not many people can live like that.
I personally believe “honoring your dreams” means doing something that’s bringing you closer to how you would rather live your life, instead of further. And that’s possible at almost any age. Remember what Charlie Munger (one of the top business men in the world) said:
“Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts.”
I think there’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s that living an authentic life, or what I would call a confident life takes not only the guts to flip the finger at peer approval sometimes, but it also takes planning, and steady focus.
Step by step, like a turtle. The satisfaction is in the knowing that you are working day by day towards a lifestyle that you can feel good about.
You know, I’d say this one regret is based on the not so false assumption that being recognized and approved of by peers is what makes a person happy. I say not so false because it’s beenthat the need to gain approval or a sense of belonging is part of what makes us human.
Feeling like you belong to the group is a natural craving. It’s why you would rather not rock the boat. It’s why you would rather do what you parents and friends hope you will do.
However, it’s not because the urge to do those things is natural that you should go ahead and do them. YOU won’t be happy with the results, the proof is right here if you needed any. And in the end we all die alone, with our thoughts, hopes and dreams. Other people won’t suffer for the satisfaction you haven’t given yourself. Only you.
And again, the satisfaction is in the pursuit. Avoiding this regret late in life requires that you at least TRY.
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.” -Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying
I like the quote from John Lenon:
“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
You and I busy working for the family, forgetting that the family could also benefit from us simply being there. Not working or anything, just there.
I just think there’s a way to balance work a life a little better if you’re willing to try. (I know personally that’s something I better start trying harder at.)
Or you think you’ll be happy once the grind is over and the work is done. Well guess what, life IS the grind.
The grind (aka the struggle for survival) doesn’t stop until you’re done surviving. (Death) So you might as well make your daily struggle for survival something that you can also enjoy right?
Part of it that, in my opinion, is doing things that bring your closer to the kind of lifestyle you really want to have, and then the other part is finding a healthy balance between your work and your life.
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.” -Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying
At this point in her book Bronnie tells the story of a man she had taken care of in his dying weeks. This man regretted not having nurtured an open and warm relationship with his children, to the point where even in his dying days conversation with them was distant.
She reflects on how we are often afraid to reveal ourselves to the people we love because of fear.
Fear it will makes us look weak, or vulnerable in that moment.
I think we often forget that this open tenderness is what allows relationships to become deep. And it’s sad because let me tell you, often what you will find, when you do get the courage to be vulnerable and express yourself, you will find that the people on the other end (especially if it’s family) are definitely willing to receive you.
Man, I know. Trust me I know. Being vulnerable with people you trust, even for just a second, it can feel like jumping out of an airplane not knowing whether the crew packed your parachute or not.
But I’m here to tell you friend, if it’s people you trust, (close friends, family) believe me, they’ve packed your parachute. 🙂 You’ll be alright. And not only will you be alright, but your relationship with them will come out stronger than it was before the honest jump, not weaker. I promise.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize 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.” -Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying
Too busy right?
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize 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.”
This one ties back in to #1 (I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.)
Here Bronnie lays out the story of one old lady who had not allowed herself to show satisfaction or happiness because of a prior divorce that had brought shame to her family.
She felt guilty for how that had affected her family and entourage and had grown bitter as a person, essentially not allowing herself to enjoy the goods things in life. All the way down to her last few weeks when Bronnie had helped her heal some of that past pain by being there for her when her family couldn’t.
It was then that she realized she didn’t need anybody’s permission to enjoy life and do things that made her happy. And I think that’s a beautiful lesson.
Especially for those of us (probably most of us) carrying some measure of guilt. Not having lived up to someone’s expectations of us, not having lived up to our own expectations..etc
Soon we’ll be put to rest, let us never forget that.
“We will all die, but this work was reminding me we all have a choice too, on how to live in the meantime.” -Bronnie Ware
Have we gone full circle or what? 🙂
So hopefully this stirred your thoughts a little bit, it’s always great to hear from someone who’s further down the line of life than you are. I mean we do learn from making mistakes but there’s no rule that says they have to be ours.
Check out Bronnie’s Ted Talk:
And get her book too. 🙂 Some very inspiring stories that will definitely make you think more deeply about how you’re living now.