A friend of mine sent me a list of The Top 5 Regrets People Say on their Deathbed as compiled by Bronnie Ware, a woman who works closely with the dying, It wasn’t relevant that the list was not necessarily the result of stringent empirical research or that it could even be fictitious; what seemed relevant to me was that it had gone viral on the Internet. These five regrets were obviously resonating with people and inspiring them to tell others about them.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
How is it that so many people spend their lives denying themselves such simple basic gratification? And why, when they are facing death, do they finally have the clarity to know what’s important to them? These questions, brought up by the list of regrets, impress upon me, yet again, the powerful impact that death anxiety has on each of us.
Death anxiety refers to both the conscious and unconscious anxiety that is aroused by the awareness that life is terminal and that we ultimately face the loss of loved ones and the end of our own existence, as we know it. However, when asked, many people say they don’t consciously think about death. Since death anxiety exists on an unconscious as well as conscious level, most remain unaware of how the fear of death influences significant aspects of their lives and motivates many of their actions.
Whether death anxiety is conscious or unconscious, most of us react to it by defending ourselves to avoid feeling the excruciating pain and sadness that comes with the full realization that life is temporary. Instead, we choose some degree of denial and escape, and in the process, retreat to an inward, self-protective state of mind. As we narrow our life experience, we cut off feeling for ourselves and for others, and we lose our individuality.
Unfortunately, when we circumvent emotional pain and suffering and repress the existential dilemma, we suffer a loss of our personal identity, freedom, and autonomy. As Paul Tillich asserted, “One avoids being so as to avoid nonbeing.” In The Politics of the Family, R. D. Laing commented, “I consider many adults (including myself) are or have been, more or less, in a hypnotic trance, induced in early infancy: we remain in this state until—when we dead awaken, as Ibsen makes one of his characters say—we shall find that we have never lived.” In Beyond Death Anxiety, I wrote:
A large majority of people in modern society appear to exist in the dazed, trancelike state depicted by Laing; removed from feeling and unable to grasp the fact that they are deeply involved in a way of living that significantly diminishes their human qualities.
To varying degrees people block out important feelings and emotions, and in so doing, deviate from their true destiny. Each individual develops specific ways of dulling, deadening, and disconnecting from themselves rather than fully experiencing their lives. They typically engage in self-parenting, self-nurturing behavior patterns, which are addictive in nature, because they relieve anxiety. These behaviors include a reliance on addictive substances, habitual routines, and rituals, along with addictive, dependent styles of relating to the people closest to them. By the time they reach old age or even middle age, many people have effectively reduced their lives to a repetitive, petty, humdrum, role-playing existence. They have progressively given up the only life that they have to make death more tolerable.
The psychological trade-off is costly. It’s true that people can effectively maintain their defensive equilibrium and avoid feeling conscious anxiety about death, but they lose themselves and their perspective in the process. That is, until they are actually facing death and are no longer able to deny it, at which time, according to Ms. Ware, many of them are able to clearly see that defending against death’s inevitability robbed them of a life that could have been more meaningful. Her purpose in writing her list is to offer people clarity before it is too late, so they will have the opportunity to change their lives and be better able to live (and die) without regret.
It is possible to alter defensive barriers and come to terms with death as a reality. Rather than deaden ourselves prematurely, we can embrace life and live with an awareness of death. We will be rewarded with a deeper life experience where the sadness and pain connected with aging, deterioration, and mortality add poignant meaning to a life of genuine love and compassion, and a joyfulness in being.