Determining the regrets of the dying is helpful for putting our priorities in perspective in the present.
Recently my 5 year old daughter brought something important to my attention. Here is how the conversation went:
Me: Bye, I’m going to work.
Lucy: Dad, why do you always have to go to work?
Me: Because I have to make money.
Lucy: I can give you some money from my piggy bank if you stay home with me.
Running the Rat Race
This was such an important reminder to me to remember what the priorities are in my life. Obviously, I have to go to work to pay the bills, but do I really need to work all those extra hours instead of spend time with my family? At what point will it be enough?
So often I live my life looking ahead to the future. I think that someday I will have the life I want. Someday I will save up enough money. Someday I will work on my relationships with my family and friends. Someday I will live more authentically.
Espousing this “Someday” mentality makes it difficult for me to be appreciative and grateful for things I have in the present moment. If I just get that promotion, if I just get a better house, if I just make more money. I imagine many people end up on their deathbed realizing that the “someday” they were always thinking about never comes.
The future doesn’t matter at all if I am not living and being grateful in the present.
What makes for a good life?
In the search for being satisfied in life it can be difficult to know where to focus. There is a multitude of advice out there and I often get confused about what I should be concentrating on. Will I be happier if I do certain things? Should I exercise, meditate, work harder, spend more time with family, spend more time alone, relax more, travel?
How do we figure out what we should be doing?
Bonnie Ware is an Australian nurse who decided to figure out how to answer this question by asking those who were about to die what they wished they had focused on throughout their life.
Bonnie spent several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded what she learned from them in a blog called Inspiration and Chai. The blog was so popular she wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
The following are the top five regrets of the dying she found (commentary is my own).
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This one seems like something we would all consider to be important, but how often do we actually make it a priority? How often do we worry about what other people would think?
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
Dang. This one strikes a chord for me because I always feel like I need to work more. I want to give my kids everything. I sometimes feel like I need to make more and more money to give them every opportunity. When I think about it, it just doesn’t make sense though. All they want from me is my time.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
It is so easy to forget to make an effort to tell people we care about how we feel about them. There are many excuses for this. We assume they know how we feel. We get too busy. We feel awkward or uncomfortable about opening up. Whatever the reasons, it is very important to express to others how we feel.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I believe this one is particularly important in our modern society. So many people move away from family and friends and it takes a lot of effort to stay connected. The good news is that technology makes it easier than ever before to be able to stay in touch. This obviously applies to family as well.
- I wish I that I had let myself be happier.
It is certainly important to take life’s responsibilities seriously, but it is a challenge for many people to be present, grateful, and happy. There is a lot to worry about in life, but focusing on the stressful things can get in the way of appreciating the good things in life. It is helpful to take a step back and be grateful for those good things.
The regrets of the dying hold a lot of clues for us who are still alive. If you knew you only had 12 weeks left to live how would you live your life differently? What would you make a priority? What would you choose to focus on?
Shane Birkel is a therapist with offices in Dover and Portsmouth New Hampshire. He offers couples counseling and therapy for individuals with relationship issues. For more information check out shanebirkel.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 603-852-3654.