This afternoon a friend of mine posted an article from the Guardian about the top five regrets people have as they come to die. As an atheist who doesn’t believe in any kind of afterlife and that each of us only gets one shot at life, being intentional about avoiding regrets has been a major motif for me in the past few years. I don’t want to arrive at the inevitable end of my mortal coil with the taste of an unlived life in my mouth.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This is the principle reason why I finally came out gay almost five years ago, and as an atheist almost two and a half years ago. As a self-identified Christian, I wasn’t being honest with anyone (including myself) about the fact that I didn’t really believe in God, and that church was basically about socializing for me. And after coming to the realization that my sexual orientation wasn’t something that was ever likely to change, and that I didn’t even want it to change, I decided that living in fear of what my parents and community thought wasn’t worth wasting the opportunity to express who I truly am. Worse, it’s not worth the opportunity to experience life through the lens of marriage and intimate relationship, and to learn to love and be loved by another human being — in my case, another man.
I didn’t want to get to the end of my life with the knowledge that I’d missed the chance to find someone who I couldn’t live without.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
For me, this has less to do with working long hours and more to do with the nature of work that I do. For most of my working life I’ve taken the safer path and accepted jobs that paid the bills or didn’t provide much challenge. Even my degree I chose in college was something I knew wouldn’t carry much risk in terms of accomplishment. But ultimately, I’m most happy when creating, whether musically or with words. The best times in my life, when I felt most alive, were when I was working on a show, or writing an opera or novel, and so on. And life is too short to not be remarkable and do what brings you.
“It’s not so much do as you like as it is that you like what you do.”
– Dot, Sunday in the Park with George
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Heh, as anyone who reads this blog or follows my Facebook posts knows, this is not an area where I often hold back. Even my face frequently betrays what I’m thinking and feeling. I was a very outgoing and exuberant child, but there was a span of years during my childhood where I was shut-down and self-repressed. I’m not entirely sure why that happened. There were troubles with my parents, as many boys experience, but few photos from those years show me smiling. I’d become very self-critical, a trait that has survived well into adulthood, and remember being very dissatisfied with myself, particularly how I looked when smiling.
Thanks to one drama teacher in junior high, however, I rediscovered my ability to express myself, to smile and to laugh again. It wasn’t until after I came out as an atheist that I was really able to start expressing the pain and hurt that I experienced growing up. And once I’d given voice to the hurt, and truly grappled with the concept of the finality of existence, start expressing to people in my life how much they truly mean to me.
Words from the Bible that I grew up hearing and reading now take on a new, ironical meaning: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Only that “me” ended up not being some religious figure.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I’m trying to do better about this, but as an introvert with some hard-to-shake social anxiety and hermit tendencies, it’s a daily struggle. To that end, and thanks to the influence of a friend of mine, I’ve started maintaining a spreadsheet to track who I spend time with, and how often. It was partly in response to wanting to be more intentional about my social life, but also getting tired of saying, “It’s been a while!”
Quite a few friendships were burned in the process of coming out twice, some on my part and some on the part of others. You do learn who your true friends are when you show them your true self, and they can either live with that identity or reject you because you’re not who they wanted you to be. And it made me realize the importance of choosing your friends wisely, and spending time with truly good people whose company I covet and value.
One of the bedroom decorating tips in feng shui is to “choose images that you want to see happening in your life.” That’s how I’m approaching friendships now. Quality over quantity.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is probably the hardest one of all. As Aslan says in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew,
“… he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh, Adam’s son, how cleverly you defend yourself against all that might do you good!”
Part of the impetus in starting therapy last September was to find a trained, impartial third-party observer to help me identify the ways I’ve tied myself in knots over the years. As Bob Wiley realized, “If I don’t untie myself, inside the emotional knots, I’m going to explode.”
Baby step: untie your knots. Life’s too damned short not to let yourself be happy.