I love Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a great fan of any Danse Macabre and prefer a Nullus Funus Sine Fidula (no funeral without a fiddle) anytime. However, death used to be very much part of daily life. As a teenager I lived in the Gothic St Bavo cathedral in Haarlem where people still literally walk all over the dead as the interior flooring of the church is entirely made up of tomb stones. It was Napoleon that banned burials in churches in 1804, something which took quite a few decades to fully comply with. After all, it was a commercially attractive activity for the church. These days the only exceptions are made for members of the royal family.
Despite my Carpe Diem attitude I was struck by an article called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying which my sister-in-law emailed me the other day. It was an ever not so subtle reminder that there is more to my life than work. The article reminded me of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford in which he confessed to ask himself daily “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”.
The article was on a book by Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, who wrote about the main regrets people have when they know that they are about to die. We should all hang the top five on the wall of our office as a pentalogue of good personal management. Personally, as I travel a lot, my biggest issue is #2 and I try to balance it by working more frequently from home.
So it is Memento Mori after all.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“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.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise 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.”