I found a column written by a palliative care nurse who spent the last three to twelve weeks with her dying patients, many of whom expressed their most important regrets. She noticed that a common theme occurred, with the same regrets repeating among all the patients. These are the top five, with the first one being the most common regret:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
As an aging baby boomer growing wiser with time and knowing what matters, I read this column with sadness and resignation. Resignation, because too many people are driven by ambition and competitiveness to do and see it all before they die, rather than be the best people they can be while they are alive.
An example is the current obsessiveness to create bucket lists, as if that will define our legacies. It’s always about the top cities to visit, landmarks not to miss, the finest wines to savor, the greatest films to see. I know a member of the Seven Continents Club who crossed off each country he visited with a “Whew!” of relief, as if this was a critical life goal that he had to reach.
When I was in Germany, the rains were relentless making it impossible to reach Eisenach and visit the Bach birthplace. In London, I had time for a visit to Cambridge but missed Oxford. In San Francisco, I had just enough time for a wine tour but missed Yosemite National Park. Famous cities and parks were on my “list” of must-sees. I didn’t make it. I’m not sure I will. Now what?
My parents were of the Greatest Generation – my dad was a World War 2 veteran and sergeant. Due to his natural facility with learning languages, he was a radio operator and was also on the front lines in Germany. I remember my mom telling me how a nearby soldier was mortally wounded and my father ran to his aid. The soldier died in my father’s arms. My father did all that was possible to comfort the frightened, dying man. There was nothing more my dad could do, and yet that was enough.
I admire my father for his bravery and courage in the face of imminent danger in combat. The Greatest Generation was unique in their commitment to our country and our heritage. That is something I am not seeing today in our young people or our culture.
The people from my parent’s generation never fretted about bucket lists or worried about legacies. They served their country, worked hard, raised families, read books, played golf, cultivated diverse hobbies and interests, socialized with friends and lived their lives. In my view, that’s a pretty fine legacy.
My dad owned an ironworking business and I was proud of his work. He loved old films, reading and golf. I still have the kitchen table dad built when I was 7 years old. I use it every day for my meals. My mom was a homemaker and died at 92. My mom still made the best Matzo ball soup and the most delicate and delicious Passover sponge cake anyone’s ever tasted. People came from all over the neighborhood to indulge in my mom’s cooking.
My father died at age 80 of cancer. On his deathbed, I do not recall him saying he had any regrets about how he lived his life. My mom had some regrets but not around legacies. Their perception of what recognition means transcended personal gain or fame.
Looking back at the list comprised by that nurse, I believe the Greatest Generation had it right.
Copyright 2016 by Bonnie Chernin. All rights reserved. Article not to be reprinted without permission.