“Remember man you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
I always enjoy watching people receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. The average person trods up to the priest slowly, rank and file, hands politely folded in front of them, trying to discern the size of the ash cross they are likely to receive. Then it happens. The priest takes ashes and smears them on their forehead saying, “Remember man you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What amazes me is how most people (seemingly) react to these words. They don’t—at least not in any discernible, visible manner (which, admittedly, is not to say that they are not having profound interior experiences). People amble back to their seat appearing unmoved by what has just occurred.
Imagine this: You’re walking down the street and an individual stops you. They stoop down, pick up some dirt from the ground, smear it on your head, grab your face firmly between their two hands and shake it, yelling, “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!” Ash Wednesday is the liturgical equivalent of this in some ways. We approach the priest who marks us with a sign and remembrance of our mortality. He spiritually shakes us in order to remind us that we are going to die. Lent is a time when we can contemplate our death—not in fear, but in the hope of the resurrection—and use this reality as a measure for how well we are participating in a deep and abiding friendship with Christ. It is a chance to spiritually clean house, reorder our priorities, and redirect our lives toward that Eternal Happiness for which we were created.
I thought that it might be interesting, then, to take a look at 5 common regrets of the dying. These were compiled by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, who wrote a book called The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. Below are the top 5 regrets that she noted with an excerpt from her book accompanying each. I have added my own comments in italics.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
Do we know who we really are? Or do we wear a mask, afraid that our weakness and brokenness will scare others away? It seems that life is less abound creating who you want to be and more about finding who you are as God’s creation and nurturing that with God’s grace through good friendships, prayer, and the Sacraments.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
In a world that values production and utility the great temptation is to be swept away by the need to produce more, do more, make more, sell more. The cost, however, is often our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Pope Francis has invited parents to “waste time” with our kids. Take time for leisure–activities that don’t have some utilitarian value or end in mind, but are simply good in themselves. Read a novel, go to a museum, take a hike, wrestle with your kids, play with your spouse’s hair. We miss the beauty of the people and places around us when work consumes us.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
Do we allow others to share themselves deeply and truly with us—their real feelings? Do we share our authentic selves with others? Do we give God our real feelings and thoughts in prayer or do we hold something back of ourselves? This is a personal struggle of mine–wanting to be known fully, deeply, but fearing that my feelings and thoughts will not be acceptable or palatable to others and that I won’t be accepted. Can I find the courage to share my true self with certain others? To be truly genuine and authentic with all even if I am not sharing my deepest self with them? Can I do this above all with our Lord, who desires to possess all of me.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
Social support is fundamental to human flourishing. We were made for union and communion. Good friendships positively mold and shape our habits, ideas, and actions. Spend time cultivating relationships simply because people matter. We should also allow others to cultivate relationships with us. It helps us realize our own dignity and worth. Above all we should often and frequently keep in touch with our Lord, who calls us His friends (Jn 15:15) and desires our friendship in return.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
We are not helpless. Happiness as a feeling is fleeting, but deep happiness and joy are choices. While each choice may not feel good, our choices move us toward or away from happiness. Flannery O’Connor said once that we resist grace because grace changes us and change hurts. Give yourself the permission to acknowledge that you may not be happy. It’s okay to say it! But, once we bring it into the light we must begin to do something about it.
Do any of these regrets resonate with you? I know that some of them do for me. Lent is my opportunity to go into the desert with Christ and acknowledge who I truly am—my fears, my disordered desires, my inauthentic tendencies, my feelings of inadequacy. The above regrets and the thoughts, feelings, and actions that drive them are warning signs. They signal that I am not living the life that Christ desires for me. They suggest that I may have some barriers that are blocking me from living more fully and experiencing a more profound relationship with Jesus.
I pray you dance with your death this Lent. I hope you pull it close. May it revitalize your life and your relationships. May it reorder your life and your priorities. May it open you up to the grace of God’s love poured for you on the Cross. May it draw you more deeply into the hope of the Resurrection.
This article originally appeared on PsychedCatholic and is republished with permission. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.