A jolly party consisting of two loyal friends – who deserve a gold medal for cheerfulness and endurance – and daughter Clare, the Chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. She brought Layla with her, so she and our dog Moses palled up, and they ran all day. Moses lies like a corpse now, as tired as are we.
Another rather gloomy pub lunch served in that offhand way that is the norm nowadays. I wonder how these undistinguished pubs that punctuate our walk can last when the pinch caused by rising inflation and tax increases is felt by middle England.
The Five Regrets of The Dying
Death’s a dark subject. Peter Pan’s “To die must be a big adventure” is a far better approach than deciding the subject’s so morbid that we should smother it with gin and small talk about the weather. Some men – in particular, men – are so afraid of death, they only go to funerals to tank whisky with chums at the wake. You wonder if that’s fair? Okay… just check the body language when you’re next at a funeral. Look to see who’s gazing steadfastly at a phone, the ceiling, the order of service, a woman’s legs – anything but dear old Henry’s box.
None of us is going to get out of this alive. Funny that Christians seem to be as fearful of this harsh fact as anyone else. Not a good look for the faith, that. Maybe they think Larkin’s gloomy verse, “That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die” may, at least, have a sliver of truth in it?
But if no one can escape the scythe, how best shall we live with as few regrets as possible when the light’s growing dim?
Old Time Is Still A-Flying
I read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse. She got permission from a few of her patients to summarise their intimate regrets in a fascinating book. Here’s a summary:
One patient, Grace, regretted she’d failed to embrace the preciousness of life while there was still time. She’d lived as if life were a “dress rehearsal” and deeply regretted that “all the dreams I’ve waited all my life to live are never going to happen for it’s just too late.” Grace did not mean this in a self-interested way – she was a dutiful mother and wife. Rather, her words reflected her astonishment that she had regarded life as “normal” or “routine” when it is, in fact, miraculous. As Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow, “We privileged few, who won the lottery of life against all the odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred.”
“Look at me now,” wept Grace, “I’m dying, bloody dying, I’ve waited all these years to be free and independent and now it’s too late”.
Personally, I think that those with an awareness of the preciousness of life experience less regret when they come to its end. They enjoy a subtly different quality of experience whilst still alive. This was Jean-Paul Sartre’s main point in his book Being and Nothingness, where he encouraged readers to embrace the “existential miracle” of life, even while confronting its finite nature. “This,” he exhorted, “should not lead to hopelessness but to a thrilling kind of meaning.”
Another patient, David, wished he’d had the courage to live a life true to himself and not waste his time living out other people’s expectations. We shoot out of life on fixed steel rails set by our genes, family traditions, upbringing. But if we have sufficient courage, why don’t we climb off those rails and tackle the tasks that God meant us to carry out? For example, as a youth, John Betjeman rejected point blank his parents’ expectations that he work in a shop and thus lived his life as the poet he was created to be. It doesn’t always end so well. Our eldest son taught in a top London school; he was sad to see how many brilliant budding actors and those with marked creative talents march steadfastly into the city as bankers or lawyers to satisfy the wishes of insistent parents instead of following their obvious but more hazardous calling. I went into the army – not a career that matched my gifts by a mile – to fulfil parental expectations. Not that I regret it now, the experience proved valuable, but at the time I knew I was in the wrong job.
Here and Now
Laura’s regret was that she hadn’t allowed herself to be happy. “For goodness’ sake” she pleaded, “happiness is right now, not at a rainbow end. Why did I work so hard at vast cost to my loving relationships with my family and friends?” Laura wished she had lived a simpler life, not one revolving around possessions or the imperative need to “succeed” and make money – just to prove the folly of the saying, “The guy who dies with the most toys wins!”
Markus mourned that he hadn’t bothered to stay in touch with his true friends. Then he wondered if he actually had any real friends? On reflection, he realised that so many of his so-called “friends” were just a cloud of good-time acquaintances from work or the golf club. There was nothing to be expected from them but fleeting emotions, which leave no trace behind them.
Robert’s profound sadness is a commonplace for men: emotion had been filleted from him by frozen parents and the harsh disciplines of school. “Real boys don’t cry, or read poetry or books”, all that nonsense. Robert ended up without the courage to express his feelings. He had never told those people he really cared about – particularly his sons – just how much he loved them. He had never even hugged them. Was it too late? Did he have the courage to start now?
“Do they really know I love them?” he asked. “Can I express this so late?”
Then Robert paused, and he wept.