My mother used to say, “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” Her early life was tragic and her words were — I think — a way to justify her decision never to look back. But mom’s aphorism does raise a question: how much attention must one pay to those who tell us about their poor life choices as they reflect on their past? Are we smart to use their experience — what they wish they did or didn’t do — to change our plans?
Here is an example of the kind of “wisdom” I’m talking about. A palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, wrote, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.* Her list comes from her work with those near death:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Let’s look at these and see if we agree.
I’ll combine regrets 1, 3, and 5. The courage to take risks is the link among them. Indeed, the word courage appears in two of the three regrets I’m talking about.
Ware heard patients lament giving-in to others, doing what was expected, and failing to push back when pushed around. In order to be true to yourself you must take charge of your life and disappoint or anger some others. True, “the courage to express (our) feelings” is dangerous, since most of us find disapproval unpleasant, and vulnerability an invitation to attack. The reward, however, can be great. As to letting yourself “be happier,” Ware observed that many of her patients — only too late — recognized the need to break out of safe routines and travel outside of their zone of comfort. This, they believed, was the road not taken: the path to happiness.
Oscar Wilde’s witticism encapsulates much of the last paragraph: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
I applaud Ware’s odd-numbered reminders to lead a courageous, assertive life. I’m less sure, however, about regret #2: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Here is what she wrote:
This (regret) came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
One important consideration eludes nurse Ware: regrets can also pertain to a less work-driven life: “Gee, I should have accomplished more. I ought to have been a better provider for my family. I might have made a name for myself.”
Marlon Brando said something similar in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, playing a washed-up boxer:
I could’a had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody — instead of a bum — which is what I am.
Rational or not, men, in particular, live with the genetic drive to make their way in the world. Many do regret having worked too much, too hard, too long — regret the loss of time with spouse and children. A different life, however, might have caused them not only end-of-life regrets, but disappointment in themselves for most of the preceding years.
Ware’s last item describes the elderly who told her, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Philosophers as far back as Aristotle would say Ware hit the target here, and are supported by psychological research on what brings life satisfaction. Nonetheless, maintaining friends is a time-consuming task: making phone calls, writing email, traveling to those chums who don’t live nearby, remembering work buddies when you leave the job, and sending birthday cards. Your vocation, as well as the spouse, children, and laundry contend for the hours available on the clock. We are never permitted more than the usual 24.
A couple of additional considerations: Bronnie Ware’s dying patients were living in a different body with a different agenda than their younger selves. The seniors looked back and judged from a once-in-a-lifetime perspective — literally. When they weighed their life experience on the equivalent of a bathroom scale, did they get an accurate result?
Here is what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote on how we think about past experiences when we reflect on our memories of those experiences: “Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion … The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living … ”
Kahneman gives an illustration of this phenomenon:
(A man) told (me) of listening raptly to a long symphony on a disc that was (damaged) near the end, producing a shocking sound, and he reported that the bad ending ‘ruined the whole experience.’ But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. My questioner had assigned the entire episode a failing grade because it had ended badly, but that grade effectively ignored 40 minutes of musical bliss. Does the actual experience count for nothing?
Which self should count? The self who lived the experience or the one who recalls the events through the imperfect, sometimes warped lens of time?
You can answer Kahneman’s question for yourself. To me, the notion of 25-year-olds being subjected to the “wisdom” of 75-year-olds cannot always result in proper guidance for the young. The same caution applies if the 25-year-old and the 75-year-old are different versions of one person. Your 75-year-old judgment cannot do justice to your 25-year-old’s life choices any more than your 25-year-old self can anticipate the manner in which he will judge his life at 75. If you are in life’s first half, then you must live by what counts as wisdom for the body you inhabit, the instincts you have, the great ideas you’ve read about, and the thoughtfulness only someone in your life-situation can possess.
Among the most perceptive observations about the human experience comes from the Stoic philosopher Seneca in his treatise, On the Shortness of Life:
Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.
If Seneca is right then the best advice is easy: live.
*Thanks to my wise buddy John Kain for calling Bronnie Ware’s work to my attention. The top photo is called Mood Disorder, by Specialtoyoutoyou. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.