Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working palliative care, taking caring of patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She made a list of the top five regrets that the dying shared with her. I list them here. The list is very helpful and I’m grateful for her work. I decided to respond to each of them from a psychodynamic point of view. So, with gratitude…
I wish I had the courage to live true to myself, not what others expected of me.
I woke up to this one on an ayahuasca journey. The words that came out of my lips were: “My life has not been my own”. It’s sobering waking up to this at 58. The good news was that I had more than 12 weeks left to live. I could get started on changing it right away. But as we’ll see with this regret and the others that Bronnie Ware so helpfully identified, the path home to self might start with willpower—in the form of a clear intention and an ironclad commitment to self and others—but it will only take you so far. Each of these regrets can be understood as a response to emotional or psychological trauma, which I refer to as “failures of love”. Until we have insight into the trauma that caused us to default to a false self (and each of the regrets of the dying that she identifies is an expression of the false self), and grieve the underlying heartbreak, living from our True self will remain a frustrated hope.
In the case of this first regret, not living our own life, if we learned that expressing our deepest impulses, desires, needs and feelings was not acceptable, living one’s own life is not possible—without some work. In one way or another we were shamed for expressing our true nature, and then we set about the lifelong (unconscious) task of figuring out how to be acceptable to the other. You do what you have to do to survive in a hostile environment. And then you forget (repress) that this is what you are doing. You become an adult believing that this adapted expression of self is the true self. It’s your default program. We can’t express our true self if we don’t know that we’re living according to other’s expectations and that this orientation started very early.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
A client of mine discovered early in his life that nothing he did or accomplished was ever good enough for his father. He couldn’t measure up. When he started his own business, he worked practically around the clock. He would miss his kid’s soccer games, not show up for medical emergencies, and exhaust himself trying to be a success. What he didn’t get was that underlying his drive was a little guy trying to show his dad that he was somebody. Without having insight into his motivation, there’s no way in hell he was going to stop this behaviour. It was his inner survivor. He would make promises, try harder, ask forgiveness, but in the end work would win out every time. Of course, he trotted out his rationale: “Look, I’m doing this all for you and the kids. It will only be like this for another year or so and then it will be easier”. The truth is that no amount of success would ever earn his father’s praise and pride. Only grieving the truth would release him from the grip of his compulsive work schedule.
I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
Courage is important in expressing our true feelings, absolutely. But the more important question is why would I have to summon up so much courage to express the truth of whatever sensations and feelings are moving through my body? To reiterate, when we learned early that expressing our feelings and sensations ended in shame, we shut them down. A great many more people than we care to believe actually don’t know what they are feeling and cannot track their sensations, because they have built body armour in the form of muscular and skeletal constrictions. This is particularly true for men, when feelings of softness and vulnerability arise. As a response to both trauma and gender socialization, we learned that these are potential sources of shame. Feelings connect us, and as we’ll see with the next one, when we learn that connection is dangerous, we’re more likely to distract ourselves from connection than risk feeling connected others. It’s the challenge of deep intimacy, when our early attachment with our caregiver, particularly mother, was not secure.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wonder if this refers more to men than women? Women seem to stay connected with friends more than men. The truth of authentic friendship is that it requires a willingness and capacity to be vulnerable—this shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of women, but it seems to be true to me. There are exceptions of course. I recently watched a TV series, starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin (The Kominsky Method) about two aging and lifelong friends. Despite their apparent awkwardness, frustration with each other, and personal eccentricities that annoyed the other, they had stayed connected over a lifetime. I found it touching mostly because it was two men finding a way to stay friends for a lifetime—something I haven’t been able to do. What passes for “friendship” of course varies with each person. My take on this is that we’re only able to maintain two or three truly close friendships throughout a lifetime—if we’re lucky.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
At this point in my life, I’m persuaded that happiness shouldn’t even be a goal. It’s a by-product of a life well-lived. Which begs the question doesn’t it? For me a well-lived life is grounded in a quality I call “intensity”. I don’t mean by this the common understanding of an intense person, which can leave us exhausted after 30 minutes. This definition of intensity usually involves some kind of narcissistic personality who can’t can’t his head out of his butt and is constantly gnawing away at the meaning of life in a way that leaves both you and him isolated. By intensity I mean a realization and embodiment of the absolute value of life, in all its dimensions, light and dark, suffering and joy, ecstasy and agony. This is the person who is willing to undergo (accept) reality as it comes to him. The problem with happiness as a goal of life is that we usually get attached to a particular definition of happiness that excludes more than half of life, all that we define as “negative”: suffering, sorrow, illness, conflict, etc. We attach to their opposite and interpret these experiences as “not happiness”. But if these can be embraced (through deep acceptance) we discover that life is an unqualified gift whatever it brings. As I think back over my life, it’s not happiness but the lack of gratitude that I most regret: baseline gratitude for simply getting a shot at life. Gratitude is born of the recognition that as difficult as life can sometimes be, we are supported and sustained by forces and processes that have been billion of year in the making, along with beings, visible and invisible, that have our back if we’re open to seeing the truth.