Over the past weeks I have been facilitating a support group for the volunteers who work in the Maison de Tara Hospice in Geneva, and I listen with them to the different conversations brought up by being close to people at the end of life. Because of this, I was interested to read about the most common regrets which people have as they are dying. Australian Bronnie Ware began recording people’s last thoughts and now has written them down in a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, published last August. In it she says that she noted common themes emerging in the discussions she had with those who were dying and she lists the top five of these.
The most common regret which she found was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”. This is not a surprise for me. One of the most important questions we can ask is “Whose life am I actually living?”, thus ensuring as we go along that we are deepening our own sense of purpose. However, what we can find is that we are actually stuck in a series of adaptations to others which may have made sense once, but which have outlived their survival value. In Winnicott’s description of child development, if the parent is not present to the right degree for the child – maybe due to anxieties, stresses or challenging moments in their own life - the infant can lose touch with his or her own needs and take on the needs of the parent or tune in excessively to the environment. In other words, we form a “false self,” which is shaped in response to the demands and expectations of others, which become for our young psyche more urgent and demanding of attention than our own needs, our “true self.”
As we move into adult life we can still have these internalized demands of other people, and shape our life, our work, or even the relationship we choose in response to them. For example, if the dominant concern or worry of the parents’ life centred around security, financial or otherwise, it is possible that the person’s adult life is somewhat guarded, seeking an elusive guaranteed safety. Initially this false self personality may be successful, as it finds energy to build up a career and a lifestyle that fulfills the inner demands. However, these ultimately fail to satisfy because we have become caretakers of another person’s development and needs rather than truly following our own path. It is for this reason that many people wake up with a sense of emptiness and loss and are led to question what they are missing. Their lives and lifestyle are not supporting their inner life. They have not set aside the necessary space to listen to their own deepest self, and a modern lifestyle does not support this reflection, with its emphasis on speed and external achievement. Thus a person can arrive at the end of life realizing that they have not “honoured even a half of their dreams“, as Ms Ware recorded, or spent part of their time living another persons life. Their lives will remain uneasy, leading to an ongoing lack of satisfaction or to distractions in the way of over-activity, or addictions to drinking, television the internet or relationships. Engaging with the deeper questions – setting aside space and time to reflect on our own deepest needs – is central to arriving at the end of a life without regrets, in order to establish a more courageous relationship first and foremost with ourselves.
To ask every day “What matters in the end” is to create the possibility of a differentiated choice, the potential to overthrow the tyranny of our history, so as to honor something that has been always there, waiting for our courage. If we limit our aspirations to good health or making money, then we might as well, in Jung’s words, “quietly shut up shop”. …If we make the effort to become conscious of our fragmented nature, we need not blindly act it out. We may thereby also be empowered to decide as grown ups, what , in the end, really matters to our soul
James Hollis, On this Journey We Call our Life