When I worked in Calvary Hospital (A hospital for terminal patients, mostly) as a volunteer my Senior year of college, I often encountered patients who would want to tell me things about their lives. Some would mention regrets, others would ask for advice, and many others would OFFER advice almost begging me to not make the mistakes they or others they knew made.
Florence was one such woman. She would come to mass even though she wasn’t Catholic. Why? “I like to be around PEOPLE.” She would say. She was full of energy for a dying woman and made all of our time spent with the dying less somber. She made us think about how we were spending our time with those we came to visit and she always injected new life into each one of us. We often visited her first. My most memorable visit with her she strictly informed me,
“Now look at this one…sitting there all alone twiddling her thumbs doing nothing. Here’s another one. Watching TV all day long. That thing will give you BRAIN DAMAGE.”
My milk nearly came out my nose.
“Young man, let me tell you something. You go back to that fancy college of yours and never you mind what those professors say, you spend time with your friends and family. Surround yourself with PEOPLE, PEOPLE, PEOPLE. You’ll never be sad that you did.”
Deacon Greg pointed me to this wonderful article by a palliative nurse who has had similar experiences. She notes the top five regrets of the dying. I’ll riff on two of them that speak to me but read the whole article for yourself here.
1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I learned this one early on, forgot it for some time and then remembered it again. I think I forgot it again recently, but recovered nicely.
In my high school all the smart kids took Chemistry as their “major.” It was a technical high school and there were only 4 college-tracks, Chemistry being one of the four. I hated it with the red hot passion of five burning suns. In college, I decided I was never going to look at chemistry again and took my physical science requirement that first semester to get it out of the way (and aced it!). My mother was aghast! “You should try to get a job a Ceigy!” She would say which was a Chemical corporation in Westchester (Ciba-Geigy to be more exact. I think they made plastics.) But I had my heart set on media and would later fall in love with ministry and I continue to do both until today. Mom thought I would starve in the media (and she was nearly right–the church paid me better, believe it or not!)
Sometimes parents mean well. Their dreams for their children are often the shattered dreams of their youth, the things they couldn’t do, or wished they had done. My mother never forbade me from flying anywhere I wanted to travel because she once thought she would be a flight attendant. But parent’s dreams are not the child’s sometimes. And many people live for their parent’s dreams and not their own.
For myself, once I got into broadcasting, I wouldn’t allow myself to admit that I was really miserable. The first day at the college station, I even thought that I didn’t really fit in. But I pushed that aside. Even years later, in ministry I had thoughts that I just HAD to stay at Busted Halo full time, even though I knew I had to let it go.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This one surprised me. Happiness is a choice. Almost nobody recognizes that, throughout life. You can choose to be miserable or look at life from a new perspective. My friend Amy, often does this and I think she’s one of the happiest people I know. I call another friend “Teflon Vic.” I don’t know anyone who has ever gotten annoyed with him, much less, stayed mad at him. Why? You just can’t. The guy is purely happy, even when times are hard.
It seems to me that Jesus was very much like this. He was accused of eating and drinking and carousing with his friends too much. He forgave easily and freely. He welcomed strangers and didn’t care what others thought about reaching out to those dastardly poor people.
In Cleveland, on this year’s alternative spring break, we were asked to go to St Herman’s House of Hospitality for dinner. We weren’t serving the dinner or even volunteering in any way. We were there to be guests alongside, poor families, the homeless and simply people who ran out of retirement money. It was an eye opening experience. It was there that I realized one thing. I could choose to be uncomfortable in that dining room (and I often was that first day), or I could simply seek comfort and happiness. The dining room had an old dog who would circle the floor for scraps in addition to the food they would give him. He was a nice friendly fella who kept to himself but would enjoy attention if you gave it to him.
My love of dogs hastened me to his side. And when I looked up from petting him there was one of the residents smiling at me. And he engaged me in conversation and we found much in common with each other (beyond the love of dogs!). In his tough times, he chose to be happy and also allowed me to realize that I could do the same.
What are the other regrets most people have? Check out the other 3. And think about some of your own already. Share them below and then think about how you might change those.
Today let’s pray that we can die peacefully when our time comes. That we will have few regrets and be able to come to acceptance of leaving the life behind that we have lived and known.
I hope there’s a dog waiting for me at the gate when I get there.