Okay, it’s Thanksgiving week, which means many of us will be spending time with family and others on whom we depend for love and support. It is a perfect time to talk about end-of-life issues and other big questions so important to our living of life. There is also that detail that we’re getting close to the end of the year, which means it’s list-making time . . . . As a self employed person, I make every effort to start this in November! So, in this post I’ll combine that conscious living topic with a list. On the top of the list for my purposes here is a quote from a favorite poet of mine, e.e. cummings, who observed
unbeing dead isn’t being alive.
Aging and community, makes me think about the topic of aging as a spiritual practice. Lewis Richmond is an author who has written about that very topic, and he has a great youtube video about this you can watch here. Conscious aging is really about what we do with our lengthening days, what is the purpose of our longevity and how will we spend it? These are big questions that I’ve blogged about before and will again in the future. What I like about Richmond’s message is its simplicity. He defines the spiritual practice of aging as
paying close attention to the things that really matter.
Conscious aging and engaged elderhood can help us get to a place where we want to be at the end of our lives, a place where we are not burdened with regrets in our backward look at our life, our “life review.” That reminds me of that 1991 Albert Brooks film “Defending Your Life.” Will we wait till the end, after it’s all over and too late to make changes, or can we live and age consciously and make adjustments as we go along. The answer is of course as unique as each of us, each of our lives. Fortunately, if we are inclined to think about making these changes in our lives, there are many models and lots of support.
So, on that topic of living consciously and without regret, here’s an interesting list from an AARP article from 2012. The author, Bonnie Ware, worked for many years in palliative care (though it sounds more like hospice to me) and so spent time with many folks during the final weeks and months of their lives. The theme of this article resonated with me as I had recently explained to a couple clients the therapeutic benefits of estate planning and considering one’s own mortality in the story of Alfred Nobel and how he came to fund the renowned prizes named for him. Hint: he got to read his own erroneously published obituary, and so he could dramatically change the course of his legacy. Yes, I wrote a blog post about it and you can read it here. So back to the list. I think this list can be used as a great jumping off point for the search for meaning in our lives.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Ware lists this as the most common regret of all. I think we tend to idealize this and forget that this one requires real courage to live in and to enact during our lives. We often don’t think about how difficult it is until we sense that we are not on that path to ourselves, which is a path uniquely our own and which can’t be defined by others or external standards or measurements.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
The author worked with older people and noted that “this came from every male patient that I nursed.”
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
This is essentially the courage to become who we already are. Sounds like I have tenses mixed up – but I don’t! On that topic of expressing feelings, I think of Dr. Ira Byock’s four things: I love you, please forgive me, I forgive you, and thank you.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
This regret is also about the choices people have made, conscious or unconscious, about how their time was spent. I liked Ware’s observation under this point: “that is all that remains in the final weeks: love and relationships.” I think this is an important point that we can be reminded of if we choose to embrace our mortality and the uncertainties of life. Perhaps it is really all that we had all along, all we had that mattered and when we strip away all the things that we accumulate in our identities, the love is what remains.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
Might sound odd, but Ware notes that many folks didn’t realize until nearly the end that happiness is a choice. This seems to be such a huge secret for so many people.
In closing, I found a nice list of books for older adults, those in the “second half” of their lives here. I also liked the tab under “mystery” which is offered as a means to develop a heightened sense of wonder in the face of a mainstream reductionist approach to living. Wonder and uncertainty, the beauty of the present unfolding is far preferable for many of us than the tidy certainties we tell ourselves to explain away nearly every beautiful wonder of this world. I think Ware’s article confirms this in many important ways. May each of us have a meaningful Thanksgiving!
©Barbara Cashman 2013 www.DenverElderLaw.org