Tag Archives: ernest becker

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.

Explaining Gatekeeping

Ernest Becker’s Denial Of Death provides the best explanation for the phenomenon of “gatekeeping” that I know of. Gatekeeping, as defined by Reddit, “is when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.”

A good example of gatekeeping can be found on Reddit in the many iterations of defining a “real man”:

To start, it’s crucial to first accept that we humans are animals who, over the course of millennia and as a means for self-preservation, have evolved the ability to know that we exist. This ability has treated our species well, evidenced by our ability to subjugate all other species. But it is also the universal human problem. It’s a problem because knowing that we exist also means knowing we will someday cease to exist. The realizations that death can occur at any time for reasons that we could never anticipate or control along with the point of view that we’re insignificant and no more enduring than an insect or a tree would understandably render our ancestors totally demoralized and paralyzed with overwhelming dread. But we managed to mitigate that overwhelming dread by constructing culture. Culture is the humanly constructed beliefs about reality that we share with people in groups to minimize anxiety by giving us a sense that we are persons of value living in a world of meaning.

Culture gives meaning by providing us with an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions of appropriate conduct and some hope of immortality either literally in the form of heavens, after-lives and reincarnations or symbolically through having children, amassing great wealth or producing art or scientific discoveries. While we may not be here forever we are comforted by the possibility that a tangible manifestation of our existence will persist over time nonetheless. As Becker explains,

“This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of status and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

If a fully accepted culture provides something as important as the ability to ignore our insignificance and avoid being paralyzed with overwhelming dread, then it stands to reason that we would avoid situations or information that could cast doubt on it at all costs. But in the 21st century we are unavoidably bombarded by alternate world-views on a daily basis. As a result, we are inclined to constantly define and defend our cultural worldview that provides us meaning, A.K.A. gatekeeping.

Being exposed to information that does not fit with our beliefs about the nature of reality or meeting other people that do not subscribe to the same symbolic vehicle we use to maintain our self-esteem are fundamentally threatening because when we admit to the legitimacy of another’s alternative conception of reality we necessarily undermine the confidence with which we subscribe to our own views. When we do that we expose ourselves to the very anxiety that those beliefs were erected to mitigate in the first place.

Someone who has embraced a “manly” cultural worldview gleans their self-esteem from meeting or exceeding the standards associated with “manliness”–owning a tightly scripted wardrobe, using a charcoal grill, driving a stick-shift, owning a gun–which helps them keep mortal terror at bay. The first line of psychological defense employed when these “manly” worldview holders run into others who are different is to denigrate or disparage them by continually pointing out the cultural rules that they play by so as to firmly plant themselves as winners of their invented game.

While it is exhausting to be a gatekeeper, the alternative of becoming aware of the lie gatekeepers are living is worse. As Becker says,

“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem.”

Painful, but also necessary. If one isn’t aware of the cultural rules that they are in servitude of as an attempt to earn the ability to ignore their insignificance then it results in making them ripe for manipulation. Take the below advertisement:

This company knows that if their ad works they stand to make a lot of money, not by successfully providing a solution to a real need, which is much harder in the 21st century, but by placing themselves within the cultural conception of what is considered “manly”. If they can convince those who derive their self-esteem through the management of what is and isn’t “manly,” then their product will succeed by being a solution to a cultural perception without having to actually solve anything at all.

This realization shouldn’t be taken as something to shove in the face of all gatekeepers, but should cause us to shudder at the thought of what inventions we believe in that make us susceptible to manipulation. What gatekeeping do we participate in to keep the terror of reality at bay? Gatekeeping is like propaganda: the only propaganda you can identify is the propaganda that isn’t working, when it’s working you don’t call it propaganda; you call it the truth. Ask yourself what Becker calls the most liberating question of all:

“How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?”