We are all inevitably touched by regret at some point in our lives. When we feel a sense of regret our sensibilities are imbued with sadness and disappointment that is often accompanied by an irredeemable sense of loss. If we feel at fault in some way, our regret is worsened by the distress of guilt and remorse. When our regret becomes deep and intense, we may become mired in grief and bereavement. The presence of regret creates instability in body, mind, and spirit. Due to the fact that it has the potential to hijack our quality of life, it is essential that we consciously transform our feelings of regret into something meaningful.
As we become older the feeling of time changes; aging means that our time left in life is constantly contracting while our past continues to expand. A critical point in our life emerges when the course of normal aging requires us to confront our own impermanence, transience, and mortality. Regret may intensify and become more disturbing during the second half of life when we feel as though we have failed to embrace life authentically, and critical aspects of our life continue to remain unlived. However, regret also helps us to learn the things that matter the most in life, and it is important to embrace our regret with a sense of artistry in order to become intimate with its hidden message.
The Regrets of the Dying
Death is one of our most trusted mentors. Regret is, perhaps, never more potent than when it is expressed by someone who is dying and no longer has enough time left to change their circumstances. Bronnie Ware offers compelling insight into the nature of regret in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She also offers a summary of the top five regrets in an article entitled Regrets of the Dying that has received over three million views at the time of writing this article.
Death and dying are often sources of intense anxiety. More importantly, once we learn to accommodate our fears about the end of life, death and dying are also sources of deeply authentic and profound wisdom. As a hospice-palliative care worker in Australia, Bronnie Ware was intimate with the end-of-life experience. Her work reaches into the depths of regret with the purpose of inspiring our own awakening:
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.
– Bronnie Ware in Regrets of the Dying
The purpose of identifying the regrets of the dying is to reveal how deeply poignant regret can be at the end of life, while inspiring others to challenge these issues while they still have time. In other words, the insights of the dying can inspire us to live more fully and more completely. The five regrets are presented in bold below followed by my own interpretation:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me: This, the most common regret of the dying, originates in the idea of an unlived life, that is, the aspects in our life that are deeply important to our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose, but have been ignored or forgotten.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard: Embracing work is essential in life, but unfulfilling work can feel like a burden and a form of confinement. We can become so busy “earning” a living that we forget to have a life.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings: Creative expression is an essential element of life; the act of living is a form of authentic creative artistry. Creatively expressing our experiences inspires a deeper sense of relationship and participation in life.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends: Belonging is a powerful force and essential need. The opposite of belonging is isolation and loneliness. We all innately need to feel as though we belong to something larger than ourselves. Friendship is one essential element of belonging.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier: Our life course is a direct extension of our own unique creative expression. When we become mired in empty routines we lose our creative vibrancy in life. To be happier in life means we fully engage in life as an artistry of aging.
Perhaps, as we read the five statements of regret, we feel an unwelcome sense of familiarity with them, that is, the felt-meaning of these statements resonates within our spirit even though we are not yet in the midst of our own end of days. Each statement of regret invites the possibility of transformation, yet we may still turn away and find the implications too impractical or uncomfortable to take seriously.
Our Own Regrets
We know that allowing regret to fester impairs our quality of life. Remaining mired in regret is ultimately a personal choice; there is no other form of regret other than that which we create for ourselves. All regret contains seeds of wisdom for us to discover. To become a student of regret requires us to move directly into our interior sense of loss, remorse, or failure. This is difficult to do because we all have a natural aversion to unpleasant experiences. However, giving ourselves permission to inhabit difficult emotions and thought patterns is often the initial step in moving through and eventually past them.
I held my mother’s hand as I struggled to offer her my full presence in the moment she took her final breath: it was an unusually deep and long breath immediately after which her body embraced a profound stillness. The energy that inspired and animated her life had been released. She was always a person who was full of life, and like each one of us, she harboured some regret about the unlived aspects of her life. And as I sat in shock beside my mother’s lifeless body, feelings of regret began to emerge in my sensibilities as well. When a loved dies, we always wish that there was more time.
Regret can be a trickster in moments of profound loss. The death of a loved one makes the unlived aspects of our relationship with them seem irredeemable. Sometimes, our sense regret is imaginary and perhaps even misguided, that is, we can feel an unjustified sense of failure or remorse at things left unsaid or undone. Perhaps a misplaced sense of regret is a natural extension of the grief and suffering we feel in losing a parent. Real or imaginary, regret is a very natural and normal human response to loss.
In the movie The Way, we witness a father overwhelmed with feelings of profound regret when his son dies unexpectedly. The loss of a child, regardless of their age, is a parent’s worst possible nightmare. Tom Avery’s journey along the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is symbolic of his own internal pilgrimage into the realm of regret, sorrow, remorse, grief, and bereavement. One of the lessons that regret teaches us that we do not “get over” our feelings of regret, but we do learn from them and integrate and transform them into a new sense of reality.
The Transformation of Regret
Deep within its mercurial boundaries, regret secretly hides an immense sense of beauty. I believe that each one of the five regrets of the dying forms a creative insight into the nature and essence of living. The dying can teach us and help us in very unique ways. My own interpretation of the beauty hidden within the five regrets of the dying is this:
- Authenticity: Embrace your uniqueness, live the life you wish to live, and remain true to your spirit.
- Vocation: Cultivate your inner calling throughout life, especially in your work.
- Creativity: Embrace our course of life as a foundation for artistry and expression.
- Interaction: Cultivate interaction with family and friends throughout life.
- Belonging: Nature makes life possible, and is our most essential source of belonging, inspiration, and wisdom.
The artistry of aging invites us to consider the normal course of aging as a fundamental act of creative possibility and expression. We cannot avoid regret in life, but we can learn to work with our regrets creatively and to focus our effort on discovering its hidden message. Painful experiences imbued with regret often hide a crucial life lesson. In attempting to transform our regrets in life we should not hope to overcome or eliminate them, but instead to learn from its effects on us. Of course, regret never quite disappears from our lives, but it can be accommodated and integrated in ways that help us to live life as fully and completely as we possibly can.