It was past midnight when the phone rang. A friend was calling from half way across the globe. “I’m at stage four” he whispered. “I’ve got three months to live!” His words shook me to my core. I needed a few moments to process it all. Here was a good man with a family that adored him and a thriving business. He donated to charity and was a pillar of his community. And while he eventually made peace with death, he never quite got over the feeling that it came too soon. He was in his 60s, but it seems that no matter how old you are, you will always feel death cutting your life short.
That got me thinking: it’s hard to go through life without regrets. One would have to cautiously measure every act and every utterance which, given our age of instant gratification, instant messaging, and instant everything, is next to impossible.
So it’s all but inevitable to shoulder a growing number of sorrows, things that we wish we could do or, more importantly, undo. And at no point is the feeling of contrition more pronounced than when all hope of making amends is lost and the dark shadow of death clinches its proverbial claws to extract this helpless soul.
The moment of death is the apex of lucidity. Every antagonistic feud will become utterly trivial when one is face to face with one’s own demise. The gravitas of death will hurl all but the most consequential matters into the distant periphery. Imam Ali, describes our predicament: “People are asleep. Only when they die, do they awaken.”
1. The Mill Donkey
Herd mentality is what drives most of us. We follow what those around us are doing, who in turn, follow those around them. This continuous loop resembles a donkey mill, going round and round with blinders, paralysed from setting our own priorities. Values are imparted through laws from politicians (motivated by power) and the media (driven by profit), which makes gradual moral decline unavoidable. We must set aside time for reflecting on our legacy (if not the afterlife). Do what your conscience instructs you to do, not what society or even your friends and family expect from you.
2. The Miser
Our needs are limited, but the impulse to acquire more copious wealth is limitless. Ask any billionaire if they ever feel they have enough. “Nothing fills the eyes of man but dirt” says one tradition. At the point of death, no amount of wealth can help avert our inevitable demise. In fact, the more possessions we have, the more agonising it is to leave it all behind. Picture having your family home repossessed by the bank or burnt in a bush fire along with all your personal belongings. Now imagine losing everything as you are crammed into a cold, empty, dark hole with nothing but a shroud to cover your body. To be content with what you have is to live freely, and die peacefully.
3. The Fool
Education is important, but even more crucial is knowledge that helps build a better character. Wisdom and the ability to learn from our mistakes as well as those of others is priceless. The problem in living in the fast lane is we become too preoccupied to learn and grow ethically, thus paving the way for countless mistakes. The study of history is a great way to avoid regrets, as it allows us to learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid their pitfalls without paying the price they did. Take lessons, or become someone else’s lesson.
4. The Ungrateful Child
No one in the entire world loves you for your own sake - and not out of self-interest - except your parents. Their love is not based on reciprocity but pure altruism. That’s why they’d sacrifice everything for their children in a heartbeat. But it’s easy to take them for granted and neglect to afford them their due care. Remember that when you honour your parents you pass those values to your own children, who in turn, will honour you. Spending time with them or just affectionately gazing at them, are things that we will come to miss. When they’re gone, it becomes clear as daylight that they — and the moments we could have spent with them — are truly irreplaceable.
5. The Neglectful Parent
Many people say they regret seeing their children all grown up and feeling that they weren’t there to see it happen. Whether it’s preoccupation with work or simply being out of touch, there is a deep sense of remorse for knowing that you cannot turn back the clock. Yet when looking down the abyss, the regret isn’t just over failing to bond with our children, but to impart ethical teachings and make them better people. It is painful knowing that you were your children’s moral compass, but failed to provide them with guidance and that you bear the heavy burden of their mistakes and ethical blunders.
6. The Workaholic
When your career becomes an end in itself, it becomes an insatiable beast which feeds on every other aspect in your life. Whether it’s the money or the feeling of achievement that produces satisfaction, there will come a point when we regret having frittered away the bulk of our lives for a little extra cash or a few meaningless paper academic accolades. Our lives represent the ultimate losing gamble; we spend what precious little time we have to earn nickels-and-dimes that we will eventually leave behind as we set sail to the next destination.