Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Man Cave: Living Without Regret

It has been said that life is a journey. It is an apt metaphor. We all travel different roads and make our own choices at life's various intersections. Some of those stoplights are wide open, and others are on blind corners. Sometimes we can't see where a turn will lead us until we're looking at it in the rear view mirror. Navigating life's highways can be a scary process full of self-doubts and second-guesses.

But what if someone at that end of their life gave you a road map?

Last week I came across in interesting blog post by author Bonnie Ware called "Regrets of the Dying". Bonnie worked with people in palliative care; patients who, in her words, "had come home to die". When she asked them about their life's regrets, she noticed some common threads.

Here were their top five regrets:
  • I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.  
  • I wish I didn't work so hard.  
  • I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. 
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.  
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Of course, like most people my first reaction was to hold this list up against the choices I've made in my own life-journey. And again, like most people I could see that I was heading in the right direction in some areas, and a little off course in others.

Then I got to thinking: why not carry this map in my mental glove box all the time? How awesome would it be to have it at hand the next time I'm stuck at a blind intersection; to pull it out and make my turn based on how far away it would keep me from life's biggest regrets? I made it my goal to do so.

And then I got to thinking some more.

What does it really take to avoid life's biggest regrets? On the level of a daily choice, what does it mean to "have the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me", to not "work so hard", or to "have the courage to express my feelings"? If we're being honest, I mean really, really honest, I think it means telling people "no" more often. It means disappointing people who have expectations for you that are contrary to your own desires.

The more I have continued to think about it, the more I've become convinced that on a certain level that's OK. Sometimes the insidious mechanisms of daily life will take and take until you have no more to give. Other people don't mean to be uncaring, it's just that we all have a tendency to get caught up in the urgency of everyday things. Your boss will never care about your time the way you do. Your bank will never really care about whether you accomplish your goals and dreams. We each have a right to defend those things for ourselves. When faced with death each of us deserves to feel we lived the most fulfilling life we could.

Of course we have certain obligations to others drivers around us. We can't let the pursuit of own desires turn us into jerks. By helping those we encounter on their own journeys, by allowing them to follow their own road in life with love and support, and without judgement, we can create the strong friendships that are one of life's greatest joys.

And then I got to thinking even more, about how perhaps the greatest lesson of all from Bonnie's list was that happiness is a choice.

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