Thursday, July 26, 2012

If I Had It To Do Over Again...

I officiated at a funeral this morning, and I'm in the process of preparing for another funeral to take place this coming Saturday for a long-time friend and member of my congregation. As a pastor, I have the privilege of being with people as they near the end of their earthly lives. It's a sacred time; often a time when a light of clarity is shone on what is and is not important. I found it timely that I came across an article talking about this very subject this week.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

What I'd like to do is take her top five observations and build on them. Ware writes that there were several common themes which surfaced again and again. Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Ware says that this was the most common regret of all. Many people realized near the end of their lives that they had spent most of their time trying to please others, or fulfilling the expectations of others.

Without a clear picture of who we are and why we are here, all of us tend to go in the path of least resistance, whether that is wasting our lives or sliding into a role laid out for us by others. I've found that there's great freedom when we understand that God created each and every one of us on purpose and endowed each of us with gifts, talents and abilities. It is when we can align ourselves with God's purposes for our lives that we can find ultimate fulfillment.

I'm reminded of the movie "Chariots of Fire," where Eric Liddell, the British Olympic runner, was having a confrontation with his sister. They were devout Christians and Liddell was planning on being a missionary to China. He put that on hold in order to compete for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics. His sister disagreed with him and felt that he was wasting his time and failing God. Liddell's reply was insightful: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." What is it that you do that makes you feel like that?   

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
Ware wrote: "This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship." This regret, I believe, comes from the compartmentalization that we have allowed in our world. We've separated work, family, faith, leisure, etc... and as a result work has become something that we have to do in order to "get" to do the rest. Witness the whole "Freedom 55" campaign as evidence of this. We've come to believe that work is a necessary evil.

We must work, and since we have to, we feel we need to get what we can, when we can. This often results in living unbalanced lives, where family is neglected and opportunities are missed. But in God's economy, we understand that healthy work is a part of God's plan for our lives. Looking back at the last paragraph of the previous point, it's about finding what we were meant to do. When our activities match up with God's design for us, fulfillment is the result.

The second part of the equation is maintaining proper priorities and balance. We were not designed to work all the time; neither were we designed to be without work for extended periods of time. In his book, "Choosing to Cheat," Andy Stanley speaks of making the choices to give quality time to our families and our God. It leads to a lot less regret.   

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
In her book, Ware writes that "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result." Many would interpret this as an invitation to "let 'er rip" on anyone who gets in your path. But that is equally unhealthy.

Good emotional health results partly from a sense of wholeness, of being true to yourself. Learning healthy communication skills ought to be a prerequisite for entering adulthood. The Bible gives great advice when it says to "speak the truth in love." (Ephesians 4:15) It also teaches us how to avoid the pitfalls of bitterness - by developing the disciplines of forgiveness (Romans 12:9-21) and prayer (Philippians 4:6-7).
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Ware shares that "There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying." This speaks to, what I believe, is one of our societies biggest problems: the loss of community. With our highly mobile, busy lifestyles, it takes real effort to maintain healthy relationships with friends.

It will be interesting to see whether the newest technology  - twitter, Facebook, etc... will actually have the long-term affect of bringing us together or pushing us further apart. I have been able to renew acquaintances with long-lost friends over the internet, but has it been at the expense of other relationships that could be more rewarding? The bottom line is that we should hold each other more closely. Real friends are hard to come by.  

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Finally, Bronnie writes that "This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

It speaks again of expectations: of trying to be what others expect you to be. I find this is true particularly of certain personality types. Phlegmatics, for example, are much more likely to "go with the flow" and not bother to express their opinion. They genuinely like to get along and feel good about deferring to others. However, the downfall often comes later when they wake up one day with a house they don't like, driving a car they didn't choose, living a life they hadn't envisioned for themselves. It's okay to say what you want! Just do it respectfully. This is also a reminder to all of us to be sure to include others in the decision-making process.

When we have a proper view of God we can place everything else in its proper context. Jesus said "I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full." The Bible speaks often of the joy-filled life. What do you really want out of life?

Interestingly, sociologist Tony Campolo recounts another survey - this one of octogenarians - who were asked "If you had life to live over again, what would you do differently?" Their top 3 answers were similar to those above. They said: 
  • They would risk more.
  • They would reflect more.
  • They would do more things that would live on after they were dead.
Similar answers, but slightly different. I think the bottom line for all of these is that we need to be living our lives with a view to its brevity. Life passes quickly, and we need to remember that one day, it will be someone else planning our funeral. What do we want said of us? How can we live a life that is fulfilling? How can we make the most of the time that we have?

I think each of those questions leads us back to our relationship with God. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the law (in other words, what is most important) He replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-39) Love God and love people. Sounds like a recipe for a great life. Try it, you might like it!

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