Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Life True to Myself

For the past few weeks, as some Facebook friends will know and for reasons which are too personal to go into here, I’ve felt intermittent but sharp pangs of ‘iPad envy’. At times, though I know it’s ridiculous, it’s been quite a strong feeling. “I must have an iPad! I wish I could afford an iPad! Can I find a way of affording an iPad?” And even the additional complication of envy for someone I care about: “So-and-so can afford an iPad – they have such a successful career and comfortable life and they can afford an iPad and an iPhone and God knows what else and IT’S NOT FAIR!!!!!

In my case, although I do have a fondness of electronic gadgets and mini-computers, my hankering for an iPad is based on an association with something far less mundane, so it’s not quite as pathetic as it sounds. But even so: when I reach the end of my life and look back at whatever regrets I have (and I expect there’ll be a few!), will my lack of a soon-to-be-obsolete piece of hand-held technology be one of them? Will the absence of a high-flying career, ‘successful’ in society’s terms, be one of them either?

Probably not.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted an article by Bronnie Ware called ‘The Five Greatest Regrets of the Dying’ ( Don’t stop reading now! – it’s not morbid, honest! Bronnie Ware used to work in palliative care with people who had gone home to die, and during her work she learned the commonest regrets which they typically had in the last few weeks or months of their lives.

These were:

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 (this was the ultimate realisation that happiness is, to a far greater extent than commonly realised, an attitude).

On a personal level, the two regrets that leap out at me the most are the first and third. That’s because they are both aspects of living that I’ve always had profound difficulties with, both aspects that I’m working through the most in therapy. Like many people, I experienced both subtle and unsubtle pressures while growing up, to conform to certain expectations of how I should behave, what kind of ‘career’ to go into, even (subtly) how I should feel – and of course I’ve continued to experience those pressures, not least from myself. It’s not unrelated to the third regret: I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Only now, in middle age, am I learning to be more authentic and free in my relationships with others. Many of the biggest regrets I already have are because I couldn’t bring myself to express my feelings to (and for) others, in life situations where doing so might have brought so many positive things into my life, and much sooner.

What strikes me too about these regrets is that they have little or nothing to do with what society, the media, the government, or our peers, tell us we should want most in our lives. We are told to work hard. We are told to buy more things. We are taught that we are worthy if we earn a lot of money, have a lot of expensive things, and are young, desirable and have lots of sex. We are certainly told that we should be happy. Yet even this is sold as something which is dependent on our having other things (money, products, sex appeal, sex). We are not so often told that happiness is an attitude – unless it’s along the lines of “cheer up!”, “smile!”, or similarly (un)helpful encouragements.

None of these regrets have anything to do with the iPad, the iPad 2 or any other very expensive piece of plastic with a tiny piece of hi-technology inside.

Ware’s article, far from being morbid, was for me both a comfort and a wake-up call. It’s comforting to know that some of the things I want so much currently, as well as the status anxiety that often troubles and preoccupies me, are things that will probably seem very insignificant in the last months, weeks or moments of my life. And it’s a wake-up call because it’s never too late to start trying to live authentically and honestly – but the sun is getting lower, all the same!

I’m forty-five years old. My partner is fifty. Neither of us are old, but then we’re no longer that young either. And I already have so many regrets about my teens, twenties, thirties, and even about the present. I have chronic health problems which make it much harder to achieve some of my dreams, to live the kind of life I so much want to live. But things like valuing my friends, learning to express my emotions honestly to others – those are not out of my reach at all.

They’re not out of anyone’s reach – unless they are unfortunate enough to live in solitary confinement. The things that tend to matter most to us, when we reach the end, are the simple, non-material things.

As Bronnie Ware says: “It all comes down to love and relationships in the end.”

And her last words: “Choose happiness.”


  1. Thank you for this beautiful post, Michael. That list is amazing -- when you read it, it's obvious but it wasn't obvious enough for me to have thought of it in the first place! What a blessing to be able to reflect on those regrets and try to correct my course in life.

  2. So glad you found it helpful, Toni - I did too! As i said in the blog, I have regrets already, but reflecting on that list helps me to remember what's really important and what I want to make priorities in my life. You're right - it's a gift!

  3. Thanks from me as well, Michael. Both your article and the one you linked are good reminders to pull my focus away from what's not obtainable to what is essential, and I think that's a nudge we all need now and then.

  4. Thanks, yes, I'm glad you feel that way too. I actually find it quite comforting to realise these things. It helps me to slow down and not 'want' so much!