Category Archives: values

How To Overcome The Top Regrets Of Dying

During her time as a palliative carer, Bronnie Ware identified what she called the top regrets of dying, which 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 hadn’t worked 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.”

In a Ted Talk describing these regrets she says, “Time is a gift. How we choose to use that gift will determine whether we are creating a life of regret or a life of joy, and the choice is ours.” She further states that all of these regrets stem from an individual’s “lack of courage.” For those who want to die regret free, her advice is individual accountability. If one dies with regret, that is one’s own fault.

I think this is the wrong approach.

While we should try to be as purposeful with our lives as we can be, it is not our choices that will save us from regret, but the stories we invent to describe those choices that will make the difference. What makes a decision noble or an experience fulfilling or an event memorable is up for interpretation. Individuals, and more importantly the cultures in which those individuals reside, are what’s responsible for those interpretations. An increase in people dying with regret should be looked at as a failure of creating meaning rather than a failure of individual achievement. 

The ability to decode choices and experiences and place them in the most fulfilling narrative as possible is a skill one must learn. Before learning this skill, we’re subjected to using the narrative we inherit from our culture, and our American culture does not provide realistically attainable values conducive to dying without regret, placing an even higher priority on the skill of meaning-making.

In American culture, success–one of the utmost prized American values–lies squarely on the individual’s shoulders. Meritocracy turns failure from a misfortune to an unquestioning verdict of one’s moral fiber. It’s “fair,” after all, that people get what they “deserve”. So, those who are unhappy must have been lazy or did something wrong; those who are happy must have worked hard and were good. Within this construct one may still be able to derive success on their own terms–individualism being a beneficial American value in this case–but it is an uphill battle against the inexorable drumbeat of America’s version of success which beats into the heads of its citizens that unlimited wealth and infinite physical beauty, both of which are decidedly impossible to acquire, are the foremost measures.  “Live without regrets,” is just one more unobtainable value piled on top of the already anxiety-inducing list.

Rather than encouraging people to “live without regret” based on criteria wholly outside of their control, we should encourage people to incorporate whatever experiences they have had into the most fulfilling narrative possible. This is not unlike the Philosophy of Stoicism’s observation that if you expect the universe to deliver what you want, you are going to be disappointed, but if you embrace whatever the universe gives, then life will be a whole lot more fulfilling.

Rather than allow our culture to decide if our life choices warrant regret by asking, What do I need to do to live without regret; instead ask the question Ernest Becker asked in The Denial of Death: “What is the best illusion under which to live? Or what is the most legitimate foolishness?…the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity and hope a given illusion provides.”

Bronnie Ware said that time was a gift. I agree, however, it’s our ability to create meaning that is the ultimate gift. It is that gift, not time, that will determine whether we are creating a life of regret or a life of joy, and that choice is truly ours.

Collapse of Values

What struck me the most when finishing Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, is his statement about the need for societies to reconsider core values in order to survive. He points to the Greenland Norse who stubbornly held to their pastoral, European identities to their own demise. They insisted on maintaining livestock which consumed a disproportionate amount of agricultural resources because they were a sign of high status. The Norse had contempt for the Inuit and refused to value their practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light. Instead of sending ships on lumber-gathering missions in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they sent men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks were used to trade for things to build and adorn their religious churches. Surprisingly, there are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains for the simple reason that the Norse didn’t eat fish. For one reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it despite the fact that eating fish would have substantially reduced the ecological demands of the Norse settlements. Instead of choosing to change their values and eat fish, trade with the Inuit or prioritize building reserves of fuel and food over building cathedrals, they died.

The Norse story from the 1300’s is put into stark reality by Farhad Manjoo’s recent article in the New York Times entitled, It’s the End of California as We Know It. California is suffering year after year from wildfires, blackouts, diminishing air quality, housing affordability, homelessness, traffic — all human-made catastrophes. Californians appear to be just as stubbornly committed to their values as the Norse of Greenland. He writes, “If we redesigned our cities for the modern world, they’d be taller and less stretched out into the fire-prone far reaches — what scientists call the wildland-urban interface. Housing would be affordable because there’d be more of it. You’d be able to get around more cheaply because we’d ditch cars and turn to buses and trains and other ways we know how to move around a lot of people at high speeds, for low prices. It wouldn’t be the end of the California dream, but a reconceptualization — not as many endless blocks of backyards and swimming pools, but perhaps a new kind of more livable, more accessible life for all. But who wants to do all this? Not the people of this state.” Diamond explains Californians attitudes by saying: “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”

I’m not a Norseman nor a Californian, but I’m just as human. What values do I have that undermine my ability to live happily now and provide my kids a chance of living happily in the future? Would I be willing to change zoning rules in my neighborhood to meet the housing demands even though it would cause my property value to decrease? Can I change my meat-eating diet so that I don’t contribute to the devastating effects of livestock agriculture which is a leading cause of global warming? Can I stop driving a car and booking long distance flights for vacations abroad? Can I deny myself the constant onslaught of consumer culture? Would I still be American if I did? Would it be moral to deny attempts of 3rd world cultures the chance of living my 1st world lifestyle, along with all of the negative effects to the planet that that entails?

To some extent those value choices that define and cement my culture are very important in maintaining a shared identity with others in my community which engenders trust and cooperation. So if a failure of living a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t kill us, then maybe the death of our culture will. But I do think, in the face of a threatened planet, I could change my values and accordingly, my lifestyle.