I take a look at some of the guff written on regret. The results will surprise you.
Today, I’m going to give you a glimpse into your future life.
I’m going to show you what lies at the end of your road, and the one thing you will regret, when your number finally comes up.
… I mean, if you’re lucky. Most people die with a thousand regrets. But if you live your life well from this point on, follow my advice, you will take just one, beautiful regret to your grave.
And I know that because it is the same regret that I carry now.
So pay attention. I think this might be about to be the most important blog I’ve written.
(And oh, haven’t I written some doozies!)
Anyway, a lot has been written about regret. There was a story doing the rounds a few years ago about a nurse who worked at a retirement home, who did a study on the things that people regret on their death bed.
I don’t know why we focus so much on that death-bed moment. It’s just like any other really.
I mean, maybe I regret not playing professional ping pong in my twenties. That’s something I might regret on my deathbed. It’s definitely too late do anything about it then.
But it’s also too late to do anything about it now. The window has definitely closed on my professional ping pong career. That horse has well and truly bolted.
The really interesting questions should be what do people regret not doing last year or last month. Regrets fresh enough to actually do something about.
Anyway, contrived scenario aside, this nurse reckons that people always regret the stuff they didn’t do, rather than the stuff they did.
That sounds profound until you think about it.
The stuff we do – that just tends to dissolve into the history of our lives. It just becomes part of who we are.
So maybe you regret selling your Bitcoin in 2010. But then you meet your future wife at a ‘no-coiner’ support group, and so you think it was all for the best.
Life has a way of working out like that. Which is really to say, we have a natural tendency to make the most of things, get on with it, and celebrate what we have.
(There’s even cases of people who have lost limbs in motor accidents who say that they are glad it happened to them.)
The other part of it is that it is very easy to romanticise the road not travelled.
So you think back to that girl you knew when you were 17. You should have kissed her. Why didn’t you kiss her? You fool.
And then you imagine the life that might have been. You imagine yourself falling in love, madly and foreverly. You see yourselves in Paris, eating croissants by the river’s edge. You see yourselves as an old couple, in a motor-home, driving across the Nullarbor into the setting sun.
You see her crouched over your grave, her tears falling on to a single red rose, the sky darkening overhead.
Sigh. What could have been…
But of course this is the romantic version. You don’t imagine her, at 3a.m, feeding the baby, hair electrified, giving you death stares because “YOU ALWAYS WALK TOO LOUD!!” You don’t imagine her at 60, cocking her leg at the breakfast table and letting go with one of her signature farts. You don’t imagine her at 75, pawning all your stuff and moving in with Shane from the bowls club.
You don’t imagine any of this stuff, even though it’s just as likely.
We romanticise the lives we never lead.
And so of course we regret the things we never did. Those things were gateways to these romantic and fantastical lives – lives that are always going to be more magical, more colourful, more wonderful than the ones we are living now.
So of course we regret the stuff we never did.
To a point.
And this is where we start talking about the one regret that I have.
Because I’m someone who opened the door and had a look at what lay beyond all the gateways of regret.
I have lived a life of relative freedom. And I’ve done it all.
When I was a young man, I threw myself into soccer. I gave it everything. I had my tilt at professional sport, and the glory it promised. I did my best. I took my chance. I have no regrets.
As a young man, I also threw myself into the feminie like a box of Whitlam samplers. By the time I found my wife, I was certain there was no one else I wanted to be with. I had found the perfect one for me. And I haven’t regretted a single day of our marriage.
(I can’t vouch for her though – I think she’s already thinking about pawning my stuff).
And I also had my crack at business. I chose not to follow the road of the nine to five and strike out on my own. It was a gamble and it paid off. Some people die not knowing.
And with that success, I now have freedom that most people only dream about. I can travel the world. I can track down the relatives in Greece. I can take part in bizarre medicine ceremonies in the Congo. I can throw myself out of an airplane over the French Pyrenees.
I can do whatever I want.
And my bucket list is completely cleared out.
So, all good then, hey? No room for regrets right? I’ll die a happy and regret-less man, quietly smiling into my last glass of whiskey..?
Because this is the thing I’ve learnt about having opened every door, having tasted every fruit, having ticked every box I could find:
None of it matters.
Having done everything on my bucket list, I can say that the amount of happiness I drew from each item on that list, is actually kind of minimal.
I mean sky-diving was awesome. It totally was. But knowing what I know now, would I go back to a younger version of myself and say, “You totally have to do this before you die.”
And the same goes for everything on there. It was all awesome. It was all good fun. But was any of it “must do before you die” worthy?
I mean, I do enjoy knowing that I have done everything I ever wanted to. That’s a nice feeling of completion – a feeling of satisfaction. That’s nice.
But that feeling of completion could have come with any bucket list really. It could have been a shopping list. The individual experiences just didn’t matter.
More and more, my adventuring has brought home that simple truth – happiness is an inside job.
Doing everything on the most epic bucket list in the world won’t make you happy – not if you’re not already primed for happiness from the inside out.
And this is what I regret.
I regret the hunger I brought to everything when I was younger.
I regret those days where I always wanted more. Where I had a great job, but I wanted a better job. Where I had a great girlfriend but I wanted a better girlfriend. Where I had great friends but I wanted better friends.
I brought a hunger to every thing I did, and that hunger always kept my eyes on the horizon, on the hunt for bigger, and better, and more exciting.
And in doing so, I missed out on a lot of life. The life that happens in the moment. The happiness that comes when you are just present to what is, when you are just grateful for what is.
In hindsight, I can see that I lived through countless blessings, through a charmed life full of wonders and beauty, and I was a misery guts for most of it.
My hunger kept me blinded to what I actually had.
And so this is what I regret.
I regret that I spent so many years as a slave to this hunger. I regret that I let so many moments for potential ecstasy and bliss pass me by, simply because I thought bliss was always over the next hill.
And I regret that it took me so long to figure it out. That the energy and the passion and the hormone-driven stamina of youth was wasted on someone who just couldn’t see how good he had it.
This is what I regret. And I’ll carry this regret with me to the day I die.
Funny old thing, life.
And I hope that this regret is the only regret that plagues you on your death bed too. I hope that from this day on, you heed this wisdom, and become present to and grateful for the wonderful gifts you have already.
But I don’t really expect you to.
I mean, I wouldn’t have. I couldn’t have been told. I wouldn’t have listened.
I had to see for myself. I had to taste every fruit in the garden before I could know that fruit was not the key to happiness. No amount of grey-beard wisdom would have helped.
And so if you won’t take my advice, then I wish that this journey will find you too. That you will have the freedom and the resources to chase down every desire, live every dream –tick everything off your own epic bucket list. Leave no stone unturned until you are convinced that happiness is nowhere to be ‘found’.
Perhaps it is the only way.
But however you find it, I hope this one beautiful regret becomes yours too:
I only wish that I had found my freedom sooner.
(… he whispers to the nurse, as she pours him a final whiskey.)