What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?
Failing to answer the call of one’s soul means living an unexplored life; it also means dying without having fully lived.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian singer/songwriter who spent many years as a palliative care nurse. Her patients had gone home to die, but she was with them the last three to twelve weeks of their lives, and over the years, Ware noted the Top Five Regrets of The Dying which she compiled into a book. The regrets are striking because they reveal the factors that, regardless of one’s age or physical health, bring meaning and purpose to human lives, and those that do not.
An examination of each regret may be useful as we consider our place in history and the collapse of industrial civilization in which we are now embroiled. Each regret has been seeded by the paradigm of civilization and reveals the ultimate fruits that are harvested as a result of allowing the paradigm to grow in our lives.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
According to Ware, this was the most common regret of all, and from my perspective is nothing less than archetypal, bringing to mind countless myths both ancient and modern of people who discover that the meaning of life eludes them. In the modern world in particular, we have few myths that actually provide a template for a life well-lived. The myth of the American Dream no longer serves and appears to unravel a bit more each day—a poignant symbol from 2013, the economic demise of a city like Detroit, so woven into the fabric of the explosion of the post-World War II American middle class.
Overwhelmingly, Ware found that dying people confessed that they had lived someone else’s life and not their own. Whether it was the American Dream, the dutiful wife and mother, the loyal husband providing for his family, or the child graduating with honors to please her parents, Ware says that most of her patients did not live even half of their dreams.
Nevertheless, regardless of age, if one has good health, it is not too late to begin the realization of one’s dreams, not separate from, but integral with preparation for the total demise of industrial civilization. This may seem paradoxical, and it is. While it is true that millions of people of all ages are experiencing a sense of purposelessness and ennui as a result of being unemployed or underemployed, it is also true that intentional preparation for a post-industrial world is replete with opportunities to realize significant aspects of one’s dreams. Are there limitations inherent in departing from the old paradigm? Absolutely, but sooner or later, most of us are going to be living in the new one, whether we choose to or not. Indeed, it is not too late to unpack, contemplate, and begin forging one’s dreams.
Dreams in the new paradigm, however, will congeal in consciousness as a result of our connection, no matter how incipient and fragile it may be, with something greater than the ego—that dimension of reality beyond the three in which we exist on the physical plane. The more intimate our connection is with the sacred, the more we can expect our dreams to be informed and inspired by it. Even in the face of a collapsing world, or perhaps especially in the face of it, we cannot begin to fathom the work that needs doing in terms of serving the earth community in a post-industrial world.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
For me, the most striking aspect of this statement is that no one said they wished they had worked harder! Most men, of course, wished they had spent more time with their families. Although some women regretted working too much as well, traditionally men, more than women, find their identity in work. Men are more likely to be socialized to be “human doings” rather than human beings, and while traditionally, women are expected to attend to the family, men are expected to work outside of the home and focus on providing rather than nurturing.
Our assumptions about work have been formed by the paradigm of the old money system that is based on separation and competition. In Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, And Society In The Age Of Transition, Charles Eisenstein has given us a template for the Gift Economy and how to implement it. In that paradigm, we may choose to work hard, but not for the same reasons we now do which have to do with competitive, ruthless survival and the terror of scarcity. Moreover, in the new paradigm of the Gift Economy which as Eisenstein says, “is about creating the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible,” rest, relaxation, celebration, joy, and play must be woven into our work. The more they are, the more the lines between work and play are blissfully blurred as we sense with our bodies that labor and laughter are not enemies but long-lost friends who cry out to be integrated in the psyche of the post-industrial human.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
According to Ware, many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace, to please others, or because they minimized the importance of their emotions. “As a result,” says Ware, “they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.” Additionally, many developed illnesses relating to their unexpressed bitterness and resentment.
Civilization convinces most of its inhabitants that emotion is essentially irrelevant and unequivocally secondary to thinking. What matters, it tells us, is not what you feel but what and how you think. While this notion is prevalent among men, women buy into it as well. Tragically, in civilization we live most of our lives minimizing emotion then at the end of our days, regret that we didn’t value it until then.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Civilized” people are individuals first and friends second. Individualism is the linchpin of the old paradigm, based as it is on the assumption of separation from everyone and everything. Every aspect of civilization’s infrastructure mitigates against forming deep, intimate, long-standing ties. Our culture is mobile, transient, insanely fast-paced, and impersonal. Children who have grown up in military families often report that due to their family being moved around so frequently, sometimes to the opposite side of the globe, they had and still have difficulty making friends. No sooner did they make a friend than they had to leave the friend behind as a result of moving to another location. Yet in recent years, millions of other individuals who are not in military families have experienced a similar dynamic. Job transfers, desperately seeking employment which cannot be found in one’s own region, the desire to be closer to family members (or to be farther away from them!), housing foreclosures, and many other factors have produced a semi-nomadic culture in which friendships are almost always vulnerable to sudden change.
I believe that this is one of myriad reasons for the insatiable hunger that inhabitants of civilization feel for community, particularly because we have not learned to create and foster intimacy in our own families, let alone with friends. As we age, the psyche compels us to reflect on our lives. Most people avoid this innate developmental task through a plethora of distractions, denial, keeping busy, or self-medicating. However, impending death has a way of removing the barriers to reflection that the ego wishes to maintain solidly in place. Quite naturally in our later years, we remember our friends from earlier times, and quite naturally, we miss them and wonder how they are. This longing for friends of earlier times is almost always connected with the other first three regrets named above. Living our dreams thoroughly, incorporating more leisure into our lives, and having the courage to express our feelings may engender more value within us for our friends and companions both past and present.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Throughout my writing in recent years, I have frequently made the distinction between happiness and joy. Essentially, happiness is a transient state which depends on external circumstances. If most are positive, we tend to feel happy; if most are not going well, we tend to feel unhappy. Joy, however, is a state of deep contentment that can be present even when we are under extreme stress, experience a devastating loss, or undergo a major life transition. Happiness is usually connected with how the ego perceives its situation whereas joy has more to do with one’s connection with the eternal or the sacred self within.
My sense is that when dying people state that they wish they had allowed themselves to be happier, they are really saying that they relied mostly on the barometer of external circumstances to dictate their mood but did not experience the deep contentment inherent in grounding one’s consciousness in the deeper self. In order to ground in the deeper self and experience a profound sense of joy, one must attend to the four issues named above that can produce regret at the end of our lives.
Joy does not fall out of the sky into our laps. We must create it by working for it, and that work entails living our dreams, balancing work and play, speaking our truth, and creating and valuing loving community. Bronnie Ware notes that those who did not allow themselves to be happy often “pretended to others and to themselves that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
What do you regret so far? What are you willing to do to minimize your regrets? If we continue to live out the paradigm of industrial civilization, we are likely to accumulate many regrets. If we are willing, however, to forge and embrace a new paradigm, we may not only experience fewer regrets, but harvest the fruits of a meaningful life well-lived.