Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, has written a book about the top five regrets of dying. Cheerful? Actually, yes.
Ware spent years helping people get through the last few weeks of their lives and noticed how much they had in common, due to clarity, once they accepted that their body was soon to be lost to the great unknown expanse and mystery.
Number One on the list is wishing they had been true to themselves rather than doing what they thought others wanted them to do.They suddenly realized that their dreams, always on the back burner, went unfulfilled. If they could do life all over, they would follow their dreams. Circumstances would be altered, and they could be the cartoonist, physicist, recluse, sax player or rancher they always wanted to be.
Number Two was, "I wish I didn't work so hard." The implication was that people regretted missing watching their families grow and not spending more of the allotted 86,400 seconds a day we all get with their mates.
That might be what these people said on their deathbeds, but work is getting a bum rap. Work is fun, energizing, necessary. Jobs, though, are a different animal. Jobs are time stealers and we all know it. Work is love, and isn't love why we're here? Not so much to receive it, but to access it, to feel it, to spread it. When we try to harness love, we get all bollixed up wondering if it's true -- then realize that the end of life sounds more like a beginning.
The third regret was not showing, having or using courage. People assumed they had courage, but were not savvy or brave enough to believe in it.
Courage doesn't just mean endangering your life to save another. Courage means having that honest little talk in our head where we know what would make us sleep better. Lack of courage is when we do what we think someone else wants us to do. We justify it by saying, "Oh, it doesn't make much difference. Whatever." But it does. Sleeping is one-third of our life and we appreciate it when it's restful and rejuvenating. To not have courage is to wake up tired.
Fourth was, "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends."
Well, there's Facebook. But that's mostly typing to our friends and calling it keeping in touch, when it's actually relaying news about our dog's worms and our opinion on the color pink or Mitt Romney. Not much, in the whole scheme of things. Staying in touch with friends means we understand we can't choose our neighbors or relatives, but friends are our choice. To make them a good choice is to sleep well.
The fifth regret was, "I wish I had let myself be happier."
That one doesn't sound so much like a deathbed observation as a lifelong pursuit. Whatever the word happy means, the feeling can be confusing enough to make us assume it's something we should pursue, like a brown trout. We know it's out there, and if we can just snag it, it will be ours.
Yet happiness is what these dying people are finally achieving, even just by saying they wish they had corralled it.
Happiness, for us, is a word no one can really define since the definition is so very personal. Leonard Peltier, a Lakota Indian who has been in prison since the late 1970s for killing two FBI men, a crime he likely didn't commit, is a happy man. How can this be? It's because he spends time inside his head, not regretting his circumstance, but realizing, in his words, "Let who you are ring out and resonate in every word and deed. Become who you are. You become your own message. You are the message."
So, if a meteor falls on our head while we're walking down Spring Street, we won't have much chance to rally and reflect on our time. But if all the bills, anxiety and discordance become what they really are -- unimportant distractions -- the dying stand a jolly good chance of sprinting through this and leaving smiles on the faces of those who didn't get to do it yet.
Ware wrote that to a person, all the dying achieved peace while still alive.
Mary Pat Boian