Life is for the living, not for the dead or the dying.
However, we can learn a lot from those who die.
In a fascinating article entitled, “Nurse Discusses 5 Regrets People Tell Her Before They Die,” [source: Bronnie Ware, universityprimetime.com, pictured to the left] a nurse who works with dying patients learned five regrets people usually have on their deathbeds:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.”
Amen. Life is about self-responsibility and self-fulfillment. You ignore one at the expense of the other.
In my experience, most people are trying to be self-responsible while feeling guilty for self-fulfillment. “That’s selfish, and it can’t be good.” But if you’re self-responsible, what do you have to feel guilty about? If you make your own way, and achieve your own happiness, then by what crazy standard are you not entitled to enjoy it?
Apparently, and sadly, it’s on their deathbeds that people finally learn the error of this contradiction. Don’t let it happen to you.
“I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
Actually, hard work isn’t something to regret. Not if you love your work, and chose it. And not if it contributed to your economic well-being and survival. People usually resent their work because they look at it as an unchosen duty, rather than something to fulfill them or (at the very least) enable them to survive and thrive.
Irrational or mistaken ideas about work lead many people to repress these emotions until they cannot take the repression any more. On their deathbeds, they understandably vent.
Also, some people work without providing themselves necessary refueling. Or, they work without treating personal connection/intimacy as the equal top value it deserves to be. In such cases, it’s not working too much that’s the issue; it’s valuing personal relationships too little.
“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
This regret is a byproduct of the first. If you don’t display the courage to live true to yourself, then one consequence will be never saying what you really mean.
A principle of happy as well as honorable living is: Say only what you mean, and mean everything you say.
No, you need not say every last thought or feeling that enters your mind. But when you do mean it, and another party is interested, by all means say it. And never, ever say anything you don’t mean.
The most valuable thing you have to offer yourself or another is your word. If your word means something, then your life—to yourself, as well as anyone you encounter—will have meant something.
If your word means nothing in particular, or the opposite of what you actually think, then there’s little to grieve once you’re dying, or once you’re gone. Regardless of how much fame or fortune you have achieved, it still means nothing if your word means nothing.
“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Personal connection is important. We covered that.
“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
And now we’ve come full circle. Life is first and foremost for yourself. It’s up to you take responsibility for living it fully; and it’s up to you to let yourself value and find joy in the results.
Interesting side-note: The nurse reported that, in her experience, every last patient she saw found peace with his or her dying when the moment came, despite the regrets.
Could it be that letting yourself acknowledge the truth, just for once, brings a sense of relief that makes dying easier? And if so, how much easier might living be, if only you faced the rational truth about what it requires?
Dwelling on the fact that you will one day die is not necessary for happiness.
However, we can learn much from the dying. What they tell us is: “If you’re living primarily or exclusively for others—for their sake, and not your own—then it’s all futility and folly. Go ahead and be yourself. Live for yourself.”
I could not agree more. I consider myself fortunate, and smart, to have figured this out without the context of a terminal illness to prod me on. I urge everyone else to do the same.
If human beings had already discovered and named the truth required to live life fully and valiantly, we would not depend on the dying to reveal it to us. We’ve known it all along.