Richard Smith: contemplating my deathbed

Richard SmithThrough Twitter from my friend Martin I have received a list of the five things that people most commonly regret when dying. This is enormously useful information, much more so than a delicious recipe, a good joke or a great quote—my usual favourites. I could be on my deathbed in the next five minutes, but the chances are—even at 58 with brain cells dying like the Romans before Hannibal—that I’ll have a little time. I have time to avoid the regrets.

Peoples’ first regret—and these regrets come from Bronnie Ware, a writer, singer/songwriter, songwriting teacher and speaker from Australia who has worked in palliative care— is that they haven’t been true to themselves and have lived the life others expected them to live rather than the life they wanted to live. They haven’t “lived their dreams.” This one doesn’t bother me. I’d like to have been a saxophone player, but better, I feel, to have been a moderate editor than a hopeless saxophone player. I am a husband and a father, but these roles have felt to me like choices and I have no regrets, despite some flaming rows.

Next, and I knew this was coming, people—actually mainly men—wished that they hadn’t worked so hard. They “deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.” My wife would say that I work all the time, but I live a life where work and play are not easily distinguished. Is writing this work? It doesn’t feel like it to me. Tomorrow I’m off to give a talk at a science festival in the Austrian Alps. Is that work? The truth is that even in the most serious jobs I’ve always let the appealing (and often frivolous) come before the serious.

The third regret people have is that they haven’t had the courage to express their feelings. Now I’m rather unemotional, maybe even a cold fish, although I don’t think that I come across that way. I get very inspired by great views, cathedrals, and good books, and I always burst into tears when I hear bagpipes, But I hardly ever get angry and haven’t been sad for 30 years. I see people around me who are very emotional and driven, and I admire them—but I’m also glad not to be them. So I don’t feel I’ve bottled anything up. Indeed, I’ve lived a very open life, hardly ever able to keep a secret. My inclination is to tell all to everybody—hence my frantic blogging and social networking.

People’s fourth regret is that they haven’t stayed in touch with friends. There are people I’ve known and loved who have disappeared from my life, and I sometimes think about my first girlfriend who was a lovely girl but misunderstood if not actually mistreated by me. I know little about women now, but I knew nothing at all then. But I have plenty of old friends, including some I’ve known for 47 years. I don’t think that I’ll share this regret.

Finally, Bonnie reports that people regretted that they hadn’t allowed themselves to be happier. I’m suspicious of the pursuit of happiness. Make your first aim in life to be happy, and I fear that you’ll be disappointed. But think what you love to do and do it and happiness will be a welcome side product. I would put myself at nine on a 10 point scale of happiness, and I might even put 10 except that I’d fear being labeled manic. Love and work are what matter, said Freud, and I’m also taken by Trollope’s advice for happiness of “a heavy load and a broad back with which to bear it.”

This all smacks of horrible complacency. Maybe on my death bed I’ll feel very different and be overwhelmed by these regrets. What I am sure of is that I don’t want to die with important relationships in my life unresolved. That’s one way I try to live my life, being sure that if I die tonight I won’t leave strained relationships—and that I will have told all the people that I love that I love them. A palliative care nurse told me that, and I pass onto you—together with Bonnie’s regrets.