Bonnie Walters is a palliative care nurse who spent many years caring for and counseling the dying in Australia. She took copious notes on what they had to say, and the following five regrets were the ones she heard mentioned the most.
Let’s analyze these five regrets of the dying, in descending order, and see how they might help us to live a more fulfilling life.
#5. I wish that I had let myself be happier
“It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.” ~ Rabindranath Tagor
Do you want to be happier? Appreciation is the key to the simplicity that Tagor discusses in the above quote. Compliment rather than complain (especially about yourself). Express gratitude rather than pity (especially self-pity). Human beings are habitual creatures. Habit offers us many benefits.
But it can just as easily make us prone to not fully register things that warrant careful engagement, like simplicity. One way to keep ourselves focused is through the artistic process.
Living a creative lifestyle has a way of peeling back our too-hard shells, thus saving us from our habitual disregard. It forces us to recover our compassion and our thoughtfulness exactly because it compels us to be more aware of the interconnectedness of all things.
Creative pursuits can help us to appreciate the little things, which can help us with the difficulty of being simple. Happiness is indeed a choice, but most of us forget how simple it is to choose it. This is usually because we’re caught up in the difficult rat-race of modern living.
#4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
“The truth is everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” ~ Bob Marley
At the end of the day, real wealth is not money but friendship. The poverty of western civilization is both psychological and spiritual. We are confused between codependence, independence, and interdependence.
We falsely believe that the money created from competitive, one-upmanship is real wealth. But placing too much emphasis on such things tends to destroy the wealth of friendships, either through weak codependence or aggressive independence.
Interdependent friendship, however, is true wealth. Understanding that we are social creatures who need each other is important. And finding someone else who understands this is a spiritual boon. Everything is connected. Interdependent friendships help us to see that, and suddenly, even when we’re alone we realize that we’re never really alone.
Like Albert Einstein said about his close friend, Besso, “My old friend, Besso, has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us…know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
#3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
“The usefulness of the cup is its emptiness.” ~ Bruce Lee
Suppression of feelings is a too common tragedy in our world today. Most people suppress their feelings out of fear. It’s usually a fear of upsetting someone, but too often it’s out of fear of some so-called authority or of being alienated from the status quo.
Screw the status quo. Question authority. The only way we evolve as a progressive healthy species is through people having the courage to express themselves.
Whether it’s through artistic expression, or whatever; if it needs to be said, say it. Suppressing your feelings may not just be personally regrettable but culturally regrettable as well.
Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have the courage to express his feelings, or Gandhi, or Thoreau, or Malcom X. In order to be useful you’ve got to get that stuff out. You have to empty the cup in order to fill it back up. Life happens, sure.
But in order to be something that happens to life, in order to discover meaning in this life, you’ve got to express yourself.
Like Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, and to survive is to find meaning in this suffering.” Meditate on the Throat Chakra.
#2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” ~ Pablo Picasso
Don’t make the mistake of being unexceptionally ordinary. Life is too short to waste it grinding away at a job you don’t love, or going through the motions at a job you like but aren’t appreciated at. Don’t be an inglorious cog in the unsustainable clockwork of our times. Instead, find work that fulfills you and makes your heart sing.
Find like-minded people, true interdependent friendship. Become an artist. The world is too grand a place not to be expressed artistically.
And nobody else can express themselves like you can. Travel more. The world is too big of a place not to be experienced first-hand. A life of drudgery is ridiculously overrated.
A life of leisure is vastly underrated. Don’t become a victim of cultural clichés. Instead, stay ahead of the culture by creating the culture. Work hard; just remember to play harder.
Somewhere between curious child and responsible adult we abandoned our sense of creative playfulness. It’s time we got it back. Having a sense of play transforms life into a sacred event, an immanent experience that alters the way in which the human soul interacts with the world.
Like Nietzsche wrote, “The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.”
#1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” ~ Rumi
Ask yourself: What do I really want to get out of life? What can I offer the world that no one else can? These questions have the potential to save your life. We’re all born into a cultural paradigm not of our choosing. That paradigm has an enormous amount of power and influence over the course our lives will take.
But sometimes, in order to discover our authentic self and our true vocation, we have to break away from the cultural paradigm. We have to have the courage to put our foot down, to draw a line in the sand of cultural expectation, and simply say “no!”
A sacred no to the status quo is a sacred yes to our authentic self. Don’t wait until your deathbed to wish you had the courage to live a life true to yourself.
Act on it now, to hell with cultural expectation and the pithy platitudes of the status quo. You’re your own person. Only you know what you want out of life. You have something to contribute to the world that no one else can contribute. It’s up to you to figure out what that contribution is.
So what if your family expected you to become a lawyer or a doctor. Become a painter or a photographer anyway. So what if your church wanted you to become a pastor. Become a poet or a novelist anyway. This is your life, not theirs.
Take their advice into consideration, but then do what you must do in order to discover your most authentic self. The future you will thank you.