Wednesday 21 August 2013

The dying have it easy


The dying have it easy in only one regard: they have lost the illusion of immortality. Their prompt death is guaranteed, more promptly than had ever been the case in their living days. They have crossed a psychological barrier from the land of the living to the land of the dying, facing a certain end rather than what they had always hitherto known: an uncertain future.

Bronnie Ware’s “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” has had an understandable impact. When I first heard of it I immediately wanted to know what those regrets were. As one of my clients once said to me: “I’m not too concerned about making a perfect decision: I just want to minimise my regrets”.

This eschatological curiosity drove me to the list of the regrets, rather than the book itself, which I haven’t read. I wanted to identify the regrets now, while I still had a chance to correct my errors. Indeed, the focus of talking about the top 5 regrets is to use those regrets to plan a better life. Unlike the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this is not so much about understanding or accepting death, but about learning how to live in a better and more fulfilled manner.

Top 5 Regrets of the Dying:

  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 hard.
  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.

Fine. Now imagine that you take these regrets as the basis for a life plan. You live true to yourself, cut back on your work, express your feelings, stay in touch with your friends, and let yourself be happier. Sounds good.

However, it probably cuts out working as a nurse. In that profession, rather than being true to yourself,  you have to be true to your patients and meet their expectations, and certainly you have to meet the ward sister’s expectations. You have to show up at the hospital on time, and then have to work hard all your shift. You have to keep your feelings to yourself most of the time, and concentrate on the feelings of others. You have to build up friendly relationships with whomsoever you are working with in a team, as well as being friendly to the dying. You have to do your duties, and put those duties before your own happiness.

In summary, Bronnie would have had difficulty doing her job in palliative care if she had really recast her life in order to avoid the 5 Regrets she heard from the dying. Work itself is a source of satisfaction for most people, particularly because it drives them to do things they would not have achieved in idleness. Loss of work is a source of unhappiness and sometimes even depression. It is better to be in work, with a sense of challenge and achievement, as well as some harassments, than to be without work.

Bluntly, the dying are no wiser than the living.  They are simply having to deal with the most terrible and absolute reversal of priorities. Of course they give different weights to different things, but that does not of itself give them insights into the problems of living. Impending death does not boost intelligence. The dying are not the people to go to for career advice. In point of fact, the Top 5 Regrets look very similar to the Top 5 Resolutions after a good summer holiday, perhaps with the additional wish of being able to speak a foreign language. Within an hour of getting back to the office, these resolutions all evaporate.

To make the point even clearer, here is James Thompson’s “Top 5 Regrets of the living”. It is just a list, without a book wrapped round it. Is is based on the sorts of things that people worry about when they believe, quite rightly, that they have a long life ahead of them, and are trying to make their way in the world.

Top 5 regrets of the living

1 I wish I could fit in better, and find out what people expect of me.

2 I wish I could work harder, and be successful.

3 I wish I didn’t let my feelings get the better of me.

4 I wish I could make new friends and be popular.

5 I wish I could make myself happier.


Back to work, everybody.


  1. Well, that was a cold, refreshing shower, James. But look a little further. Hard work and a professional attitude are commendable, but not if you get home at midnight and never see your family or friends - in due course they may cease to be your family and friends. Expressing your feelings to all and sundry is inappropriate, but failing to express them to people close to you is also inappropriate. A nurse has to be true to her patients, but if Bonnie had worked for an insurance company instead of a hospital, she wouldn't have been true to either. Sorry to be so middle-of-the-road on this, but I think they were good regrets.

  2. Marshall, good to hear from you. Yes, of course there is a need for balance,and I did not intend to imply the extremes you describe, but throughout most of life work-related effort brings benefits beyond the merely financial. Now to your key point: can one be true to one's self and work in an insurance company? I will search for data, and try to give an evidence-based reply.

  3. A friend of mine used to work for a life insurance company; from time to time some dim policy would be proposed which led him to lose his temper, shout a bit, and accuse sundry colleagues of being stupid. He ended up as a senior executive. Mind you, he was probably more intelligent than his colleagues so maybe his behaviour cost him top spot. Whether he wanted the top spot, with all its constraints, I don't know. Maybe his intelligence is what made them keep him on in spite of the occasional explosions.

    Where was I? Ah yes, he had to retire a little early because of ill-health; he had plenty of money but he still he regretted it because there was a big project he had wanted to see through to completion. So yes, even a highly intelligent chap with a short fuse could be true to himself and work in insurance. He did, however, have one over-arching regret: the way that respectable Life Offices had fallen into the hands of a cadre of salesmen who, in his view, could not be trusted to behave with propriety towards their customers.