I read an interesting list the other day. It contained the five most frequently expressed regrets that people have during the last days of their lives. The origin of the list was a study of nurses whose job it is to care for the dying, also known as palliative care nurses. Since I am once again on a long flight to China, I thought this would be as good a time as any to look more closely at this list and ask myself if I share these regrets, and, if so, if I might be able to cut some of them off at the pass (since I am, knock on wood, still in good health.) This may sound like something of a morbid exercise but, like any writer, I believe that looking at the end of your story helps you figure out how best to shape the beginning and the middle. According to the nurses’ study, the five biggest regrets that people have just before they kick the bucket are:
1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
I don’t think I’ll have this regret. If anything, when my time comes, I may regret that I was too self-involved and narcissistic, and I ignored what everyone else expected of me (or recommended I do), sometimes to my own detriment.
2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
I don’t think I’ll have this regret either. I love working the same way my mini-Aussie, Buffy, loves catching tennis balls (which is a lot.) She and I are both working dogs, and, as such, we need a task to keep our minds focused and our tails wagging. I may regret not being better at my work, or not being more talented or self-disciplined, but it’s unlikely I’ll wish I hadn’t worked so hard. (I fully intend to be checking e-mails right up until I croak.)
If anything, I would probably wish I’d had the self-restraint not to express my feelings as often (or as annoyingly), or to bare my soul in a kids’ media blog so that everyone knows how I feel about absolutely everything.
4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
This is an interesting one in our age of social media in which friends are a commodity that can be counted in the hundreds or even thousands. I’ve had the same small group of friends for decades and we stay in close touch, so I don’t think I’ll regret this one either. I may regret that I was not, at times, a better, more understanding friend.
5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
Hmm. I am conflicted about this regret. I happen to believe that happiness is over-rated. I would say I feel happy about three days a week. And I would say I feel sad about three days a week. On the seventh day, I rest. I suppose I could work on these numbers but I’m basically good with them. I tend to think that sadness occupies an important place our lives. If handled correctly, it helps us appreciate many things, including happiness. As my shrink says, “Only crazy people are happy every day.”
So, in summary, my own list of deathbed regrets would be quite different from the ones in the nurses’ study. If I had to generate a list today, as in right now, as my Southern China Airlines flight cruises high above some nameless patch of frozen Russian tundra, my list of regrets would probably go as follows (give or take a regret):
1. I wish I’d had better people skills.
2. I wish chocolate hadn’t made me fat.
3. I wish I could have been more sensitive to the impact of my words on the people around me. (This one may be redundant.)
4. I wish I’d learned to speak Mandarin.
5. I wish one of my shows had sold a lot of toys.