He had almost died.
And he knew it.
While he was grateful that he was alive, he mostly felt regret.
He was 65. A lawyer. Very wealthy. Living in New York City.
He had everything.
Or at least, he thought he had, right up to the point where he went into cardiac arrest on the Cath lab table due to an occluded coronary artery that we were desperately trying to open.
We succeeded in getting the vessel open, and he survived.
In the recovery area, he had his two daughters and his wife at his side. They were worried but relieved.
While he was immensely grateful to see them, he explained that the overwhelming sense he had at that time was of regret:
Regret for working too hard and not spending more time with his children when they were young.
Regret for missing many of the important moments of his children’s lives; school plays, sports games, and birthday parties but mostly for not being there for breakfast in the morning or dinner in the evenings.
Regret for not spending more time with his wife over the years, particularly after their marriage when things got really busy with work.
But most of all, he regretted not living a life more aligned with who he knew he really was and wanted to become.
Sure, he was a very successful lawyer, but he said that just ‘kind of happened without him noticing’. It was just a matter of following in the footsteps of those who had gone before him.
He had planned on ‘making a change’ at some point in his life, but one year turned into five, which then turned into ten, which turned into twenty.
He told me that he and his wife had always talked about taking a year off to spend in a small cabin they had in Upstate New York. Just reading, walking, eating well and spending time together.
He planned on spending more time with his children.
But now he was here.
In the middle of the night, in a hospital in New York City.
Having just survived a major heart attack that almost killed him.
In the knowledge that he really should have lived his life differently.
This man’s story has always stuck with me.
I’ve seen many people survive heart attacks, but his story always stands out as the most significant gap between where someone was in life and who they had wanted to become.
Not because that story is unusual but because he had all the means to do it. And didn’t.
This gap was there not because of his social circumstances. It was there because he chose it.
He chose to be that person.
Or maybe the world chose it for him, and he just went along.
But now he was here.
Everything always seems so obvious in retrospect.
And in this man’s case, it was not like he knew exactly how he should have lived his life in 30’s 40s, and ’50s, but at some level, he knew how he should have been living his life. And didn’t pay attention.
“I’ll work hard this year. Save a bit more money and then next year.”
The question we all need to ask ourselves is:
What will we do today to avoid ending up in the same position as this man?
What will we regret when death comes knocking on the door?
And it is coming for all of us.
This isn’t something you get to avoid.
Bronnie Ware, an Australian author, spent years caring for people in the last weeks of their lives and asked them what their biggest regrets in life were.
Working too hard.
Spending too much time on something that meant they didn’t spend enough time with those they loved. Work is important but not the most important thing in life. If it is for you, then you have some thinking to do.
But that wasn’t the number 1 answer.
The most common answer was not having the courage to become the person they wanted to become. They mostly regretted living a life others expected of them, but they did not wish for themselves.
As Carl Jung says:
“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don't know, the world will tell you.”
Quite honestly, I believe this is the most important aspect of health.
True health is the sense that your life is fully aligned with who you wish to become, and you are doing so in the company of those you love.
Living longer with better abilities of movement and cognition are important, but for me, they are only in service of spending time on what is most meaningful in your life.
The biggest question of health is not what your fitness level is or what your blood pressure is.
It is ‘Are you living a life that is most aligned with who you know you should be’?
And if the answer to that question is in the negative, then you need to start reevaluating where you are headed in life.
Because even if you are very successful, you might find yourself surrounded by your family (hopefully) after nearly dying, regretting your decisions when you were younger, just like the man in this story.
What happened to that man full of regret?
He said he was going to make a change.
He said he was going to spend more time with those he loved.
He said he would make his life about living in a way that was more aligned with who he had always wanted to become.
He said he was going to spend that year in the cabin.
I don’t know if he ever did make that change, though.
I don’t know if his life changed that night.
But I can say one thing for certain:
But that’s a story for another day.
Interesting how the message frequently comes late, but it's always "on-time"!
Great story, thanks. And a super headline, well done. I'm a month short of 71, so naturally this is an ever more interesting topic here.
Perhaps it's helpful to keep in mind that there is no proof that life is better than death. It's a common and reasonable assumption that life is better than death, and it may indeed be true. But nobody knows, as there is no proof of any theory on the subject. The regrets many experience would seem to be based on this unproven theory that this life is all there is.
It's at least possible that our human lives exist in some larger context which we are not equipped to understand. As example, imagine trying to explain the Internet to your dog. As hard as he might try, your dog just doesn't have the equipment needed to grasp that level of abstraction. It might be like that for us too.
If there was proof of some theory about death, we would have to accept that truth. But there is no proof, of anything. And so we are free to design whatever story helps us get through this life. I don't know what story anyone else should write for themselves, but why not try to make it a happy story?
For myself, I take comfort from the many reports of near death experiences. They don't prove anything either, but I think I'll place my bet on that, as it's a pretty darn good story.
To the best of our highly imperfect human ability, let's try not to regret our life, or our death either.