What is the most common regret expressed by people who are dying? According to Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the #1 regret is:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
What a sad and horrifying thought: you get to the end of this one life that you’ve been given, and you realize that you didn’t allow yourself to be who you really are.
What can we do to avoid experiencing this regret?
To me, the answer to that question is pretty obvious. First, we must discover our true selves. Second, we must live authentically.
“Know thyself,” taught the Greek philosophers. Sounds easy enough. After all, we’re with ourselves all day long, so you’d think that we’d be quite sure of who we are, what we believe, what we need, what we want — not just on the surface, but deep down at our core. But many of us are unsure about these things. Knowing ourselves at more than a superficial level requires a lot of introspection and challenging self-reflection. It may involve taking personality tests and career interest inventories, spending time alone to think, seeking guidance from books or people who inspire us, even talking to counselors or psychotherapists.
We can also pray to the Holy Spirit for more self-awareness. As the following excerpts from Psalm 139 remind us, God knows us better than we know ourselves:
Lord, you have probed me, you know me.
you know when I sit and stand,
you understand my thoughts from afar.
You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
Lord, you know it all…
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made,
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
But all of this self-reflection and soul-searching require time and effort. That’s why many people simply find it easier to just imitate others and follow the crowd. They run the risk, though, of being one of those people who experience heartbreaking deathbed regret.
Self-understanding is only the beginning. Once we know who we are, we must then be ever “true to ourselves,” which can also be described as being authentic or living authentically. The term authentic means “genuine, real, not counterfeit.” It suggests not being someone we’re not, not faking it, not pretending, not changing to fit in, always being honest about what we want and need, choosing careers and interests that matter to us, doing our own thing regardless of what others are doing, and refusing to compromise our values and beliefs.
For most people, living authentically is easier said than done. So many things are working against us, especially our fears, our insecurities, our need to be included and loved. As a result, we frequently make choices — large and small — that go against our grain. So we keep wearing fashionable shoes that hurt our feet. We keep going every morning to jobs that pay well but feel meaningless. We keep spending our precious few hours of leisure time doing things we don’t really enjoy that much. We keep going along with what everyone else is doing. We keep failing to seize opportunities to take a stand and truly live our Truth and our Faith.
I think it’s important to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re living authentically. If the answer is no, we should consider what we’d have to do or give up to be truer to ourselves and prevent Regret from showing up and standing by our side at the end.