The opening scene from the movie “Shall we Dance” is the monologue of the character played by Richard Gere – a Chicago based estates lawyer who, despite seeming to “have it all” feels like he is missing something. It goes like this:
A million and a half people ride the El trains every day. Over 20 years, I’ve written wills for about 8,000 of ’em. I’ve sat with ’em as they’ve combed through their assets, figured out which kid gets the painting over the fireplace, which one gets the antique spoon collection.
Last thanks, parting shots, confessions… People try to fit it all in. And once I’ve finished, another life has been summed up – assets and debts tallied, then zeroed out. You initial here and there, you sign at the bottom. Then, if you’re like most clients, you look up, smile,
and you ask the question I’ve heard for 20 years: “Is that it, then?”
“That’s it for the paperwork,” I tell ’em. “The rest is up to you.”
I too am a specialist estates lawyer. While I spend more of my time helping families manage the legal fall out after the loss of a loved one, part of my working life is spent helping others to get their affairs in order. Many of my clients, like the ones described above, plan for what might happen, without in that moment facing the reality of their death.
In only a few instances have I been asked to prepare a “death-bed” will. But each and every occasion has left an indelible memory with me – because the care and reverence with which these clients prepare their wills, is just an honour to behold. I have witnessed these clients focus all their available energies to make sure every phrase in their carefully crafted plans is understood. I have seen palpable relief descend over clients after documents were painstakingly signed, and I have been blessed to hear words of gratitude expressed for the urgent efforts made to allow my clients’ last wishes to be so well expressed.
It is a glib “movie line” to say “that’s it for the paperwork, the rest is up to you” – because for some “the rest” is not long. All they have left, is time to look back over their life and reflect on how they lived it.
Death is not a nice thing to witness. But a life lived well – even to the very end – is beautiful to see.
We won’t know when our time will be up, so living life well – daily – is so very important. But how do we do that?
Bronnie Ware is an Australian palliative care nurse who spent several years caring for patients during the last 12 weeks of their lives. Bronnie speaks of the clarity of vision that people would gain at the end of their lives and the common themes that surfaced again and again during these conversations. She routinely asked her patients about “any regrets they had or anything they would do differently” and from the answers she wrote a book entitled “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” She summarised those regrets as:
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 much.
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.
So, what are the lessons we can take from these “reminders”? How can we flip these around to impact each one of us with a positive challenge to live our life better?
To me these regrets send a powerful message on the top five secrets of a well lived life:
1. Live true to yourself
We must live our lives daily, true to ourselves. I believe we owe ourselves and others to find our purpose and our talents and to be brave enough to share those with others. We should challenge ourselves to connect with like-minded strangers and to pursue relationships that have a positive influence in our life. To find time in our everyday to indulge in doing something just for ourselves.
We also need to find the inner fortitude or the greater strength to resist those who seek to impose their own expectations on us. We must learn to say no. To resist the pull to travel down a road that doesn’t align with our values just because that is where the shiny, happy, crowd is going.
The road less travelled is never the easy path, but it seems to be the rewarding one.
2. Work hard at what you love to do.
Working at the expense of having a life is not healthy for anyone. Yet finding purpose and joy in our daily work can be one of life’s greatest joys. Think of any impressive figure in history or now – and you will find a person who has worked tirelessly. It is not the money made, or the hours spent that makes anyone “impressive”- but rather the impacts made and the talents spent to make the world a better place locally or globally. For these things are the legacy of hard work done by people who love what they do and share their talents generously.
3. Share the joy and the pain
Expressing feelings can be hard. We worry so much over what others think and how we will be perceived. But, oh the freedom that comes from being real with those “like-minded strangers” who then become part your village. It is easy to fall into the trap of looking at the “highlight reel” of other people’s lives on social media and wonder why your life isn’t that great.
What isn’t as easy, but what is far more important, is to find just a handful of your closest people, who you see in the flesh or speak to out aloud. Let yourself be vulnerable and accountable to these few – to share not just the good stuff, but the tough stuff. Likes, comments or shares on social media will not reach what your soul needs – instead find actual people that you can look in the eye, or speak to with a quiver in your voice. Engage in an actual conversation not one that someone can “scroll past”. It is in these real, exposed exchanges that you will find greater richness in life. We are built for community not social media.
4. Love well
A well lived life is ALL about relationships. True, actual, generous, two-way street, sometimes good, sometimes bad, warts and all relationships. These are not always easy to maintain. When things get hard we have a tendency to bail, rather than to stick it out. But I know, from personal experience that my closest relationships are those which I have fought for the hardest. Where I have perhaps said things, feeling like I had nothing to lose, in the hope that I might hit solid ground upon which to build something stronger. Where efforts to maintain contact are deliberate and reciprocated. Or where despite time or distance it is pure joy to meet again.
It is not always easy to maintain friendships, but we must make the efforts to do that – or people will walk in and out of our lives too often, and we will be poorer for not having taken the time to invest in friendships that transcend the acquaintances we make along the way.
5. Be happy – better still know joy
The pursuit of happiness is a phrase taken from the American Declaration of Independence – as if it is some right we each have to seek our own happiness so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else or break any laws in the process. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that you shouldn’t do what makes your happy, but I prefer not to think of it as an entitlement but rather a consequence of other activities.
That is why I prefer the word “joy”. To me joy is something that you can feel even in the midst of difficulty – because it is not an emotion but rather an ability to feel contented and grateful for what you have, despite the circumstance. It is the ability to grieve deeply the loss of a loved one, at the same time smiling at the memory of having lived and loved to an equal depth.
Joy comes from loving and being loved, from helping others, finding purpose, being kind, working through difficult things, from the satisfaction of hard work, from doing good and being generous. Joy like love, is not selfish. And joy, is not found in the “things” of this world – where often happiness is pursued – but it is discovered in the legacy of a life well lived once the stuff accumulated over a lifetime is let go.
So as another working year draws to a close and I stop to celebrate Christmas – and the Story of how a new Way arrived unassumingly beneath a Promised star – I plan to stop and reflect on how I can live this one life I have to live – with no regrets.
If you took a look back over your life right now – would you have any regrets? If so, what change (big or small) could you make to live a better life?
Thank you for reading my recent blog ramblings! I hope you have been encouraged. Wishing you all a blessed and restful Christmas and I will “see you” in the New Year! Z