Spoiler Alert!! This post contains a lot of personal information about me, so if you are one that does not appreciate true confessions, this post might not be for you. It is also a little longer than usual, although most of the clips are relatively short.
Someone once said only the good die young because only the young die good. During the past two weeks I have thought a lot about getting older. I guess I should be grateful that I worry about aging, because when you stop doing that, you’re dead. It all started when my weekend was ruined by a pain in my back. I thought I might have hurt it that morning exercising, but it turned out to be a kidney stone. I went to the emergency room for strong drugs (one of God’s greatest creations), but came home with the added bonus of pneumonia. Both ailments really wiped me out. Our counter looked like a pharmacy. I had no appetite, so I ate little, but still managed to gain four pounds. How is that even possible? After several days of this, I finally announced to my wife, that if this is how I am going to feel when I’m 80, please, God, let me die when I’m 79. To add to my glumness, during my recovery, we met with our financial planner, who focused on my upcoming retirement (a good thing!), but also making sure “our affairs were in order” when death ultimately comes (a depressing thing). That same night, we went home and watched the little known movie, The Last Word,[i] on Netflix.
The basic premise of The Last Word is Harriet, a retired businesswoman, decides to write her own obituary, and seeks the help of Anne, the local newspaper’s obituary writer. It is a tense relationship at the outset, as Anne explains, “She [Harriet] puts the bitch in obituary.” In this scene from the film, Harriet tries to tell Anne how to do her job by explaining to her what makes a good obituary:
As these elements of an obituary illustrate, a dull, useless person has either never existed or has never died. I don’t read obituaries often, but when I do, they typically tick off the accomplishments of the deceased, as if each one is a necessary building block of their mansion in heaven. I guess most people feel a little like Maximus in the movie, Gladiator[ii] – that we need to somehow leave a great legacy behind us – one that will “echo through eternity”:
If I were to write my own obituary, it would simply say, “He lived a relatively long and mostly happy life in which he loved his family and friends and felt their love in return. He learned a few lessons about life, saw some beautiful things, and had plenty of interesting experiences along the way. He died with the belief (but with little help from him) that the world he left was a little better than the world he entered.”
During this obituary obsession, I thought about two of my favorite movies about death. In the original Flatliners[iii](the remake was just released), five medical students try to learn what the afterlife is like by putting themselves in near-death experiences. But instead of learning about the next life, they learn more about this life, and the traumatic experiences that shaped their lives. In this scene (which is really a collage of several scenes), one student flatlines and discovers a young boy waiting for him that he had bullied growing up:
A less intense, but still thought-provoking movie of a similar vein is Heart and Souls[iv] where people who have died find themselves on a purgatory bus, with something they must resolve on earth before they are taken to heaven. Here is a scene where a mother is able to find her son that she gave up for adoption many years ago:
A few years back an Australian nurse wrote a book entitled, The Five Top Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed.[v] You may find the regrets surprising. Here is a link to an article about the book:
Are there things in our own lives that we regret, need to resolve or find out about before we die? I am basically satisfied with my life, but I do have a few regrets. In a rare state of vulnerability (and in an effort to avoid ghosts from the past), I am sharing with you my top five regrets of the dying and my plans for attempting to atone for those regrets:
Regret No.1: I wish I would have put more emphasis on wellness and less emphasis on right and wrong, particularly in connection with religion. Crazily, my favorite book in the Bible is Ecclesiastes. I mean, how many people have even read it other than the famous verses about a time for every purpose under heaven? Solomon is credited with writing both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. As I read Proverbs, everything is black and white, good and bad. But things become more nuanced for Solomon by the time he writes Ecclesiastes. Truths are now shades of gray, and tempered by experience. I wish I had had a bit more of the Ecclesiastes outlook much earlier in life. I grew up in a religion that puts an emphasis on absolute truth, and the only sure way to get into heaven. Although I have never fully believed all that my religion taught me, I went along to get along. Our kids did not always see things the same way as that religion did, and although we were more liberal than most members of the religion, it led to disagreements and in some cases mild rebellion, as we drew certain lines in the sand that our children had better not cross. In hindsight, I wish I could have been more supportive of allowing our children to find their own truth and way in the world. While I think most of our now-adult children have gotten over some of that tension of the teenage and early adult years, I know there are still some scars that have not entirely healed.
Atonement No. 1: It is never too late to apologize for sometimes being too narrow minded, and to openly discuss with others how my actions might have affected them.
Regret No. 2: I wish, career-wise, I had been able to have done more to help the world and less to make rich people richer. I think I’m a good lawyer and have had great experiences doing many very large transactions. But no matter how well I handled those deals, the bottom line (pun intended) was to make rich people and companies even richer. I wish that somehow the work I did would have translated into easing economic disparity. The gap between the top one percent (especially the top of the top one percent) and the middle and lower classes continues to widen.
Atonement No. 2: Having been fairly good at making money, I have tried to be generous with it in an effort to help others in need, particularly extended family. I have worked hard the last ten years to develop a decent charitable giving account that I will use to help others, especially those that are hungry and homeless.
Regret No. 3: I wish I had bought fewer houses and taken more family vacations. I say this one with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. But I counted the number of houses and condos I have owned or still own, and the number is 22(!) including the home I am currently building (and a few rentals). Of course, I have relocated for work six times, which added to the number. But for whatever reason, a nice home was my psychological sign of success. In hindsight, I wish we had taken more family vacations and put a little less emphasis on having a nice home. The real culprit of our lack of vacations, though, was sports. All of our kids were heavily involved in youth sports and played something all year round and we felt like the teams were counting on our kids being to all the games. That commitment didn’t leave much time for family trips. While our kids enjoyed the sports, did very well at them, and learned some important things from playing them, looking back, those sports were not nearly as important as we thought they were at the time.
Atonement No. 3: It’s never too late to spend quality time with family and friends and I still have a few more years in which to enjoy a family vacation or two together.
Regret No. 4: I wish I had maintained better contact with friends and neighbors from the past> I have kept close to a few good friends, but there have been many good friends from my past that I have not had any contact with for many years.
Atonement No. 4: I joined Facebook for the first time a couple of years ago as a start of this atonement, but there is so much more I could (and will) do to catch up with lost friends from the past.
Regret No. 5: I wish I had danced more, read more, written more and learned to play the piano. In short, I wish I had taken more time to pursue personal interests. As a kid growing up, I though it would be cool to learn how to tap dance. But that was something little boys just didn’t do back then, so I never brought up the subject with my parents. I didn’t learn to enjoy reading until years after I got married and I say how much my wife read and how much she enjoyed it. And I didn’t start writing anything other than legal documents until about 15 years ago. I doubt I ever would have been able to make writing a career in and of itself, but since starting to write, I have learned how therapeutic it can be, at least for me.
Atonement No. 5: I look at my upcoming retirement as a time to do some of these things. Although I might never become a tap dancer, it’s not too late to take a dance lesson or learn to play an instrument. I have a list of writing projects I intend to work on, and hopefully will have a lot more time to enjoy reading. I look forward to retirement for these reasons alone.
There is never a wrong time to take a few minutes to evaluate how we are doing in life. Are we happy? Do we have strong connections with family and friends or are there new or improved connections we need to foster? Are there new interests or talents we could be developing? Are there past offenses that need to be righted? Is there someone in need that we have the power to help? I hope each of us will take a few moments and go through such an evaluation, and repeat that evaluation often.
[i] The Last Word
- Production Company: Franklin Street, Myriad Pictures and Parkside Pictures
- Director: Mark Pellington
- Screenwriter: Stuart Ross Fink
- Starring: Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfield
- Release date: March 5, 2017
- Production Company: Dreamworks, Universal Pictures, Scott Free Productions
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Screenwriter: David Franzoni
- Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen
- Release date: May 5, 2000
- Production Company: Columbia Pictures, Stonebridge Entertainment
- Director: Joel Schumacher
- Screenwriter: Peter Filardi
- Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Keven Bacon and Julia Roberts
- Release date: August 10, 1990
[iv] Heart and Souls
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, Alphaville Films, Stampede Entertainment
- Director: Ron Underwood
- Screenwriter: Gregory Hansen
- Starring: Robert Downey, Jr, Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard
- Release date: August 13, 1993
[v] Bronnie Ware, The Five Top Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed, copyrighted 2011, 2012.