For the last four months, I have been reflecting on the five regrets often felt by those who are dying as they have been identified by hospice nurses.
The first regret is: “I wish I had let myself be happier.”
The second is: “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
The third is: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
The fourth is: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
And the fifth regret is: “I wish I had the courage to live my life, instead of the one others expected of me.”
I know that as children our parents worked hard and long to help us develop the skills needed to be productive and honorable members of society; we are taught how to behave and how to interact with others, we are taught how to follow the rules and to control our emotions.
All of this is good and necessary. Yet, at some point, we go beyond that; we begin to internalize the behavior. We accept the rewards of behaving as we are expected and fear the punishment for not behaving that way. We begin to allow the expectations of others to determine how we live.
This is not always a bad thing, but it sure can become one quickly. People expect us to behave in a certain way, and we feel obligated to do so, regardless of how we feel or what we are experiencing.
We fit in, but somehow lose ourselves in doing so.
The pressures of the society around us begins to mold and form our understanding of how we are supposed to behave in order to be a man, or a woman, in the world. If we diverge from the norm, we learn to hide it, repress it, and love ourselves in doing so.
My closest friends know something about me that most people are usually shocked to hear when I tell them. On the personality scale, I register as an extreme introvert. When I tell people this, and they are surprised, I remind them that being an introvert is more than just being “shy,” it is about what I need in order to reenergize and renew. That involves alone time, and quiet time.
A while ago I read a book about being an introvert and it had a section concerning the guilt that an introvert feels. Most introverts enjoy social gatherings, to a degree, but we all find them exhausting, and sometimes we just don’t have the energy needed to “be social.” Even though we may wish to politely decline an invitation, expectations prevent us from being honest.
We feel guilty not meeting the expectation of others, and so we accept the invitation, often to the detriment of our emotional health.
Meeting the expectations of others also becomes the source of our endless busy-ness, our running from one thing to another. If we don’t have the time to stop every so often and spend time with the Lord in prayer, if we don’t have the time to get to Mass on Sunday because there are too many needs and demands on our time and attention, then we need to stop and ask whose life we are living anyway?
Those who are in hospice, who have a short time left to live their lives, have a powerful insight into what really matters. They have a lesson to teach. Of the five regrets we have been reflecting upon these last months, I find this one the saddest.
Yes, sometimes people will be disappointed if their expectations are not met, and sometimes people who barely know us will be upset because we do not always act as they presume someone in our occupation or vocation should act. That is the price we will sometimes have to pay to be true to ourselves, the benefit is freedom to be and to live.
This matters, of course, because the life we have been given is a gift, and a singular gift at that. It is your life, no one else’s, given by the God who loves you. It was given that you might bring the gift and blessing of that life to the world. Therefore it is for us to embrace and live that life.
To do that takes time, and awareness, and courage. The time needed to stop and reflect and be open to the life God gives; the awareness of what we are feeling, what our needs and desires may be, what bring us joy and meaning; and then the courage to live it.
If we do this, we may find that people will appreciate our honesty, respect the gift of our diversity and love us even more, at least we will be more open to receiving and reciprocating that love honestly. We will also find our very lives give glory to God who sent His Son for a beautiful purpose, to set us free.
“I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 9-10)