The third top regret that Bronnie Ware identified was: “I wish I had had the courage to express my feelings.”
Bronnie: “a lot of people are too scared how their vulnerability and honesty will be received, and that was something that in the end, they just wished that people had come to know them on a different level, but their loved ones couldn’t know them on that level, because they’d never found the courage to express their feelings.….”
It is interesting to note how this “I wish” game is playing out here. From the first to the last regret, the dying person and what he wants takes centre stage. All the regrets boil down to this: my life should have been more about myself and not what other people wanted for or from me.
I will come back to this when we discuss the final regret because I think this an indication of where these regrets come from, and it is important to understand from what mindset these people were operating from going into their final days. Bronnie reiterated that this was not a scientific study. It was simply conversations she had with dying people and the regrets just popped up spontaneously without her prompting or suggesting that they should talk about it. This is good to know because it is so easy for an interviewer to lead the people being interviewed or being engaged in conversation to give the answers you want them to give. That it is why it is a little bit disconcerting where she said that she got the answers from the people because asked the right questions. The right questions? And the right answers? According to whom?
This is a serious and important wish/regret: “I wish I had had the courage to express my feelings.” It is almost as important as: “I wish I had the courage to discuss death more openly” which naturally never happens in our ‘death denying ’ culture. Death is beyond the self, is transcending the self and you do not want to go there. Rather stay with what was lacking in my life and the things that could and would have made my life better.
And yes, we do not talk about our feelings openly. For women it is easier to talk about and express love more openly than it is for men. For men it is a sign of weakness to express feelings of love, and yet, in the end even the tough guys regret not having had the guts to say those three little words “I love you”. Even worse for all of us is the lack in courage to express feelings of anger, disappointment and even disgust. Most of the time we want our lives to run smoothly, we do not want to rock the boat. We want to be nice, walk away from uncomfortable situations, deny those turbulent emotions and take it with us to the grave. In the meantime, we secretly regret that we did not have the courage to give the bastards a piece of our minds!
Sadly, this is a far cry from George Saunders’s confession: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” This is the more mature, selfless attitude towards life, it asks the question: what can I give to make live better for other people, to make the world a better place for all. In contrast to this, the regret as expressed here comes from the ego, it implies that, if I did this my life would have been better. The “me” is all important, is central in the story about my life. In Maslow’s theory about development our ego needs (or esteem needs) are classified as deficiency needs along with the need to belong, our basic safety needs and at the bottom of the hierarchy our physiological needs.
The esteem needs are the final deficiency needs that deeds to be satisfied before we can move on to the phase where growth needs become the dominant motivators of behaviour. The regret of not having expressed my feelings stems directly from a lack of esteem. Because I did not express my love and/or anger in a proper and clear way, people did not understand me and because they did not understand me, they did not value me according to my true worth. The consequence of not being valued by other people, is that my self-esteem sakes a nosedive. I do not have a very high regard of myself because other people do not think much of me as a person. If I had the courage to stand up for myself and declared my love openly I could even have married that boy or girl that I loved with all of my hart, and conversely, if I had the guts to make a stand against my abusive mother or father or boss or friend, my life would have been so much better.
But sadly, my time is over. I cannot rewrite the past and all that is left is to lament a life that could have been so much better for me if only …!
Atul Gawande’s favourite dinner party question comes to mind here. “What is the quality of life that you would live for, if you couldn’t do everything you wanted?” In other words, if it comes to the end of your life, what is the quality of life that you would live for?
The answers he got to this question is quite revealing. One person wanted nothing more than to eat chocolate and ice cream and watch football on television (physiological needs at play here?). Another wanted nothing more than to be at the dinner table with family and friends to talk to and to connect in that way (belonging needs are paramount for this person?).
And then there was this other person. When Atul asked him his favourite dinner party question: “So what is the minimum quality of life? Is it being with your family?” He obviously loved his family very much, judged from the number of photographs of all of them that he had in his office. The man answered: “Well … no. Its complicated. You know, honestly. If I can just have a good book and some quiet, I would give up a lot to still be able to have that.”
Here we have a person who is obviously on another level of development. Deficiency needs no longer determines his life choices because he is motivated by growth needs, he is on Maslow’s level of self-actualisation, he is no longer living a life of regrets but is in the process of achieving his individual potential. He is in what Richard Rohr calls the second stage of development where ego needs and selfish desires are transcended and a life for the greater good is strived for.
George Saunders puts it so beautiful when he admonishes his students to: “Do those thigs that incline you towards the big questions and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that as ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”
You are going to die. Make the most of life while you can. Do not squander it on trivial regrets. In short; try to grow up before you die.