I listened to BJ Miller in his TED Talk “What Really Matters At the End of Life“, then again in a podcast interview recently. As someone who has witnessed over 1000 deaths, he is arguably one of the best people to share what makes a good life from those at the end of theirs.
We've all read the poem(s) about 'If I Had My LIfe Over – I'd Eat More Ice Cream.” It seems the earliest attribution is to Nadine Stair at age 85.
If I had my life to live over, I'd dare to make more mistakes next time. I'd relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I'd have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I'm one of those people who lived sensibly and sanely, hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I've had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I'd have more of them. In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I've been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies.
And it is a truth that: “No-one on their deathbed ever wished they'd spent more time at the office.”
Actually I'm not sure I know anyone who wishes they spent more time at the office, deathbed or no. One of the responses you never get when you ask people what they enjoy doing, is spending (any) time at the office. But I digress.
I really like BJ's more nuanced response.
I like it because our lives aren't all on a timeline towards a tidy deathbed in twilight years. Death is a mere car accident away. BJ's response is one that allows us to live a full life, whether it ends tomorrow or 70 years hence. (Or if you're a transhumanist, never.)
Unfortunately most of us don't live a full life. Most of the people I know at best end up in a 'Ground Hog Day' type of grind, at worst are bitter.
And you don't get to live it again.
So how do you live that regret free life?
1. Make Conscious Decisions
You have agency…
…Societal pressure, peer pressure, your parents, your spouse/partner, your job, succumbing to any of these is a choice. Ultimately you either make decisions, or they are made for you. But pretty much everything that describes our life is a man-made construct.
So be conscious about your decisions. Think about how you spend your time, your money. A very simple rule of thumb I've found is “you can make the right decision, or the easy decision.”
If it's a tough decision, because there are many right choices, make the decision that increases your opportunity to enjoy deep relationships and give to others. If that doesn't help, toss a coin and follow your emotional response to the toss. Commit to making this the best decision.
This isn't only valid for the big life decisions: Vocation, Location, or Life Relationship; but the little ones too. Consciously choose the farthest car park so you can increase your walking. Consciously pay for coffee to brighten someone else's day. Consciously tithe and give to charity. Consciously choose the bedtime story over the sales proposal.
As far as possible, don't default to automatic decisions, but be conscious.
2. Live in Gratitude
This morning I commented on Instagram about having to fly in economy, so chose the exit row. My daughter teasingly reminded me this was a #FirstWorldProblem. Indeed she's right. I don't have to fly, I get to.
There is so much to be thankful for. Even the painful gout that reminds me every single step: I can walk, I have shoes, I'm alive. (Much better than the alternative)
Write down every night 3 things you're thankful for. Send a thank-you card to someone every week. Thank the people that serve you, no matter how little they do.
Thank them by name.
Thank your God, or the universe, for the simplest flower, the sunset, the rain. For the incredible times we live in where we can access the wisdom of people throughout the ages in an instant.
When you're tempted to criticise, or complain, be thankful instead. The richest people are not those with the most money, but those who're most thankful for what (& whom) they have.
Resentment, anger, rage, disappointment these are all cancers that eat you. Rarely the other person even after revenge. The worst is when they're directed at yourself.
This doesn't only make you into a bitter person at the end of your life, but throughout your life. And not only socially, but physiologically. In my late twenties I had Ulcerative Colitis, an auto-immune disease, that is largely exacerbated, if not triggered, by stress. That stress was in a large part due to my inability to forgive.
Let it go.
Whether the end is next week, or in your dotage, if you can get there happy with the path you chose because it was the right path, thankful for the richness of your life, and unfettered by bitterness, yours will have been a good life.
If you get there with deep loving relationships, having given to others, and changed their lives; yours will have been a great life.
You get to choose.