Confession: I like country music. I’ve always said they were kind of like books on tape. (Remember books on tape?) Tim McGraw sings a song that is especially poignant, which tells the story of a man who’s been told he is dying. He says that as a result he “loved deeper, spoke sweeter, and gave forgiveness he’d been denying.” Then he ends the chorus with “I hope someday that you will get the chance to live like you were dying.”
This song is on my mind today as I’m on my way to visit a dear relative who has been told that the cancer has spread and the prognosis is not good. I am hopeful that this will be a weekend of pleasant reminiscing about wonderful memories. I’m sure that we will talk about the cruise we took to Alaska a few years ago. I’m so glad we carved out the time in busy schedules and spent money that could have been used for other things, because that was such a precious time. In the seven years since that trip, cancer has claimed the life of one of our travel companions, and a chronic illness has robbed another of their active lifestyle. Now with Aunt Martha’s worsening disease, I’m asking myself the question, “what would I do differently if I was dying?”
This isn’t intended to be a morbid post. Quite the contrary. It’s an encouragement to examine your life and make sure you’re on a path to being able to get to the finish line and say “that was a life well lived.”
Regrets of the Dying – 1
In her book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” Bronnie Ware recounts the themes that emerged from patients she cared for at the end of their lives. Number one was ‘wishing they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves rather than what was expected of them.’ As someone who finally followed her true calling to her third career in her 40s, I’m happy to be able to place a check mark by this one. Maybe for you it’s downsizing in spite of the people in your life who will think it’s because you can’t afford the bigger house. Perhaps it’s finding the courage to repair or end a toxic relationship. Courage is one of those things that doesn’t really show up until you need it, so step out in faith that it will be there.
Regrets of the Dying – 2
Next was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” I’m happy to hear more people seeking work/life balance, and it’s one of the things I encourage my clients to wrestle with in sessions and out. There are certainly seasons in life when working hard is required, but it always needs to be balanced with the end goal of getting the more important things back on top.
Regrets of the Dying – 3 and 4
Third on the list was “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” Keeping the peace at all costs comes at a very high price. It’s uncomfortable to talk about feelings, but the depth it brings to relationships is something our souls crave. The fourth one seems closely related to the third – “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” In the busy lives we live, it can be really hard to carve out time with friends. Especially in transient Southern California, it’s exhausting to invest in friendships that seem to invariably move away. But loneliness creeps in gradually, and it takes intentionality to make and maintain meaningful friendships.
Regrets of the Dying – 5
The fifth regret summarizes the first four – “I wish I had let myself be happier.” While we don’t always have control of our circumstances, we do get to choose how we respond. Sometimes we need to push past the fear of change to follow the passion that’s been in the “maybe someday” bucket for way too long. Or it might mean that you need to stop fighting a situation you wouldn’t have chosen and find a way to be content in spite of it. I think it’s interesting that these patients said they wish they had “let” themselves be happier. It seems that at the end of their lives they realized that happiness is a choice rather than a byproduct.
Live Without Regrets
I suspect that my Aunt Martha has few if any of these regrets. She is someone I’ve long admired for keeping her priorities straight. When we first talked about her prognosis, she told me “I’m not afraid to die, but I love my life and the people in it.” Wow. Wouldn’t we all love to have that outlook at the end of our lives?
So how about you? What would you do differently if you were given “3-6 months?” Now what are your heart’s desires underneath those things, and what can you begin to change now so you can finish well? In Tim McGraw’s words, live your life “like tomorrow was a gift.”