What matters in life? Is it money, success, social status? is it the beautiful house with the white picket fence and the shining red convertible in the garage? Are these the things we’ll be looking back at with pride and joy on our death bed, as our family members sit at our bedside, taking care of us.
Not quite. If you measure your success in life on the above metrics, actually, you might not even have that many family members at your beside when you are about to leave this world for the next.
What are then the things that matter? Why don’t we ask the people that are on their deathbed. They have the most invaluable advice for us to follow.
Bronnie Ware did just that. She worked many years in palliative care, taking of old people that only had a few weeks left to live. She asked them whether they had any regrets. they did. Interestingly, most of these old people seemed to have the same regrets about their past.
Ware collected such anecdotes and reflections into a book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. You might not care much about such a topic when you are twenty and think you still have your whole life before you, but once you get closer to forty and life has hit you under the belt a few times, these thoughts will ring very true. You’ll scramble to avoid making the same mistakes.
People, in fact, change when they finally face their own mortality and what they have achieved in life. This usually starts around 40 years of age. By the time you are 50, unless you are extremely proud of where you are in life and of what have achieved as a person, not with material things, you are going to experience a mid-life crisis. I know millionaires who have. Their millions did not spare them the anguish of getting old and going nowhere with their life.
That is the reason Ware’s book is so important. It deals with what really matters, with particulars and eternals, with what makes your soul be at peace with itself and the world.
When she asked these old people what their top life regrets were, these are the ones that they mentioned the most.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back on it, they see a highway of unfulfilled dreams. Your parents want you to be a lawyer or a doctor, but you really enjoy photography or nursing. Follow your heart. You can only excel at what you love.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
This regret was expressed by every single male patient. They missed the stuff that really counted in their life; their children’s growing years, their giggles, their sense of wonder, the bedtime stories, the family games around the dining table. They missed intimacy and companionship with their wife. They missed weekly dates, walking hand in hand talking about life and lessons learned, about their children, their friends, about them. Yet this problem has a simple solution: simplify your lifestyle, give up the bigger house and newest car. Spend time with your spouse and children. Cherish every moment. Happiness is not in things owned, but in real, meaningul relationships.
3. I wish I would have expressed my feelings more
Most people don’t like confrontation. They prefer to go along, to let things slide, hoping that cracked relationships will fix themselves with a magic wand while they sit on the couch watching the football game, or while fixing their car, or going shopping. Truth is, none of these activities have lasting value. What does is the willingness and the ability to work on our relationships, to make them meaningful and true. As Aristotle had understood already 25 centuries ago, we are social animals. What makes us really happy is solid, growing relationships with other human beings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
Most people get so caught up in their own life that they forget one of the true sources of joy in life: real friends. Solution: when you are older and dying, what matters is not financial status; it’s friends that can sweeten they days of your old age with shared memories and understanding of common trials. In the end, it’s all about love and relationships. These are the things that matter.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier
Happiness does not happen. It must be sought and cultivated. It is not the fruit of material possessions and social status. It’s the fruit of hard work in the disciplines that we love and in the relationships we form with family, friends, and community. it’s the sense we are working for the betterment of the world at large. Keep a child’s sense of wonder and joy in your old heart. It will reward you with Solomon’s wisdom and Paul’s contentness.