What we can learn from the dying

13 July 2015

Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse who has counselled the dying in their last days, has revealed the most common regrets we have at the end of our lives. These are the top five regrets, as recorded in  her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

No surprises there, you might say. We all know all of this already don’t we?

So why are these five things still the top five deathbeds regrets? Because we know it but don’t do anything about it. I know it’s not as easy as it sounds but making these changes is down to us and us alone. These changes don’t happen to us, they happen because of us.

We can decide, now, to learn this lesson. Or we can leave it too late and just confirm what everyone already knew by dying full of regret, unfulfilled and disappointed.

For more detail, see Bronnie Ware’s own website: http://bronnieware.com/regrets-of-the-dying

Rage against the machine

The joy of this blog will be, I hope, the sheer pleasure of naive speculation. Of ignorance and unsophistication. I will write from observation and thinking, largely unhindered by dogma and the conventional canon.

Of course, the paradox is that by writing this blog, and indeed reading more widely and inviting further discourse, I am making myself gradually less ignorant, less naive, more aware of the conventions of philosophical, psychological and psychotherapeutic thinking. And that too is exciting. Other people have had brilliant ideas. Those ideas have been responded to by others, who themselves have had great insight – and so on. And I have the privilege of being able to learn about these people, these ideas, this flow and build-up of knowledge. In order to add anything new, I need to stand on the shoulders of these giants, to absorb this accumulated wisdom in order to formulate my own thoughts.

But still, I have a nagging fear that by reaching into this rich field of prior knowledge, in some way I lose the essence of the search, the purity of the dream of original thought.

I am taking a course at the moment and I keep hearing over and over again in my head the words of our course leader, speaking before our first assignment was due. “This assignment is just to show you’ve understood what we’ve been teaching you.”

It was meant to be reassuring, of course, and in many ways it is. The pressure is off, they’re easing us in gently. All we need to do is understand the basic premise of the subject. We know which books to read and what areas to cover. It’s a steady starter for ten.

But I am filled with the nagging dread that right now is the last moment when I can be a truly independent thinker? That this assignment is the thin end of the wedge, the start of my absorption into the status quo, that all my ideas from here on in will be directed, channelled and restricted?

Everything I think about this subject from now onwards will be set against a context of others’ thoughts, channelled into a pre-defined paradigm, judged according to a hegemonic orthodoxy, and shrouded by an arguably arbitrary set of beliefs and assumptions. Who can say whether the position we find ourselves in now is not a series of compounded errors leading to a specious ‘truth’?

Yes, you’re right, I may overthink things sometimes.

But I cannot escape the thought that where we are now is simply the result of one set of developments, a linear road from expert one to expert 1,000 which leads us only to the accepted paradigm. What if expert one hadn’t existed? What if expert 78 had come first? Could there even have been an expert 78 without an expert one? How would the landscape look now if the protagonists had been different? What paradigms would I have been working within then?

Or have we reached an inevitable and essential truth that would have been reached somehow at some point anyway? It would be reassuring to think so.

But I doubt it. In most fields of exploration, it would appear that it is less about moving towards a universal truth and more of a stumble towards a makeshift solution balanced precariously on constantly shifting foundations.

Of course, in the end my intellectual contortions achieve nothing. We are where we are. I have no choice. All I can do is offer my thoughts, as unique as I can make them, from an accepted theoretical base. Even my desire to stay free of influence and pure of thought is laughably too late. The influence began the day I was born, probably before.

Then again,  I could take the utilitarian, and significantly less tortuous, view that whatever the theoretical basis of the course I am taking, if it works then that’s fine.

But it’s not.

What if there is something missing from our frame of reference, and what if it is something that can only be glimpsed from the blank slate? What if I could discover something now that in the weeks, months and years to come will be dulled, diluted, lost?

It brings to mind the joy of a child’s painting. The honest daubs, the flawless smears, the never-ending possibilities and the innocence that surely betrays a greater truth. In some ways, it is perhaps the most honest art of all. And then, over time, children are influenced, they look around them, they see other paintings, they learn what people like and what they don’t, and gradually those paintings lose their power as they increase in their competence. From there, everything is derivative.

Already my daubs and smears are being shaped, already being homogenised. Like it or not – and I don’t – I’m in the machine.

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

“Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”

Sigmund Freud

A wounded deer leaps highest,

I’ve heard the hunter tell.

’Tis but the ecstasy of death,

And then the brake is still.

The smitten rock that gushes,

The trampled steel that springs!

A cheek is always redder

Just where the hectic stings.

Mirth is the mail of anguish,

In which it cautious arm,

Lest anybody spy the blood

And ‘You’re hurt’ exclaim.


Emily Dickinson