Sunday, January 22, 2012

Regrets Too Few To Mention

I went to my prom. I got a good education. I married a good man and divorced him at the right time, in a way that allows us to still be friends. I work at keeping the good friends and letting the bad ones fade away. I have a job I enjoy. I've gone out and seen a lot of the rest of the world. I take risks only after counting the effects they will have on me and those around me. All in all, I believe I pass the "if I were hit by a bus tomorrow, I'll die happy" test. What more could a person want from the years stacking up around them? And yet, at the prime age of 43, I think increasingly about regrets.

Because I'm a hospice volunteer, I spend a lot of time with old people. Dying people. Beyond the discomfort, beyond the anger at terminal illnesses, the greatest cause of emotional upset is often what you and I would call regrets. The estranged daughter, the books never read--or written, the years, now collapsed by hindsight, spent working when they could have been spent with friends or family. The chances not taken, the patterns not broken, the cities never seen, the old feuds left festering. Again and again I hear patients remark with wonder and shock that the years have passed them by too quickly. "In my head I'm still 35," one 80 year old friend told me. "How did I get to be this old?" a patient has asked. "Be careful," she said, "the years go by too quickly to count."

An article by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care worker, has received much attention over the past year. In it she lists the five primary regrets she has heard from her dying patients. They are:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It would be easy for me or anyone to shrug off these five wishes. They are vague--what is happiness?--and a little too close to the saccharine platitudes our society substitutes for good, hard thinking. Why worry about it--the regrets slated for the end of my life, or even dying itself--now, when I'm busy living? But I can't shrug them off because, like Ms. Ware, I too hear them said under my patients' breath, see them in the excitement of a dying person when the phone rings, read them in the subtext of comments like, "Of course my daughter can't come visit, she's far too busy with the children."

In an exchange this week with a friend who is caught in a malaise he can't quite diagnose, I noted the above list. He read it and quickly brushed it off as "follow yr heart" stuff. It's all well and good to regret the possible, he noted, but what about regretting the impossible? My reply was that many things we come to regret appear possible only in hindsight.

Years ago, when I lived in California and desperately wanted to write, a lover told me that the most important and difficult thing in life was to be happy. He was a beautiful man from Israel, married, a surfboard maker in the process of trying to earn his keep by making instruments. He was a craftsman, spiritual in what we call that California way, conscientious and thoughtful. I didn't believe him because I was too enamored by all the tales of disturbed and unhappy writers, sacrificing for their craft, dying unhappy and often unpublished. I thought unhappiness and bitter sacrifice were the hallmark of genius, of greatness. Now I know that, in his own way, he was onto something.

Lest those of you who know me suspect I'm going soft, have no fear. There's nothing more difficult, braver or more dangerous than living as you wish. It is in that struggle to live without regrets that justice is grounded. It is in making a good life that we define our rights--to be a woman doctor in the 50s or a tranny flight attendant or a black president or a friend good enough to admit when we're wrong. These happinesses, great or small, are not eccentricities, on the whole, but a daily assertion that we are going to do what we want, as much as is possible, for ourselves and the people around us--because if we don't we will regret it. It is because we don't respect ourselves, our desires, our years, our urges to do something else, our want to be happy, that results in regret.

Joan Didion writes in "On Self-Respect," an essay in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, "Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do her, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions." That list is the one that my dying patients are reading and rereading their last days. They are tallying up the bad decisions, the wrongs, the complacency, the fears obeyed. Didion continues:

To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether we respect ourselves.

So, perhaps here then is the trick to dying without spending your last years and months consumed by regret in an uncomfortable bed, the trick to not waking up one day to find that your years have run by without notice, to not getting caught in routine and obligation. It is: to remember that the dying comes. For all of us. It's not a tragedy to be avoided, it is a certainty. Easier to face it with "toughness, a kind of moral nerve" which results from owning up to mistakes and braving the ramifications of our decisions.

I have to go now. I have a book to write.

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