By Ernie McCray
The other day I saw a graphic on Facebook titled the “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” and they are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Oh, how sad to be burdened in one’s last days with regrets such as these. My heart goes out to anyone who suffers such disappointments. I can see how one might regret that he or she didn’t travel more or go for a doctorate degree or blew some opportunity to hit it rich or the like.
But I can’t imagine living a life not true to oneself, or a life according to someone else’s desires. I mean I’ve gone after all my hopes and dreams, full-out, simply as me. Who else could I be?
I sure couldn’t have been that foot shuffling “Yassuh, Massa” character Jim Crow wanted me to be. And it had nothing to do with “courage.” It was just me being me.
And forget it altogether if someone had expected me to be in a profession other than the one I chose: teaching. Doctor? Too much blood for me. Mechanic? I can barely distinguish between a lug nut and an ignition key. Insurance man? Talking to folks about annuities and liquidity and indemnities would be like going to hell with an overnight in purgatory to me. Not being yourself has to be the epitome of living in misery.
Now, I will definitely not take my last breath wishing that “I hadn’t worked so hard.” I didn’t do any half-stepping in my work, but I could lay it aside as though it were a painting that needed to dry – in a heartbeat.
Like if my kids were running in a track meet or playing a game or dancing on stage or playing the piano or the clarinet or the flute or the trumpet or the French horn in a recital or in the marching band or delivering a poem or showing a piece in an art show – I was off the clock. Always first with me: my family. I feel for people who, for whatever reason, had to work so hard they couldn’t choose their rightful priorities.
The regret that really got my sympathy was the one concerning those who wished that they’d had the courage to express their feelings. It’s hard for me to relate to such a plight because expressing my feelings is part of my DNA, my family tree; it comes to me naturally via: a grandfather who preached the gospel and wrote poetry; another grandfather who started talking as soon as he woke up, and walked down the street, just a tipping his hat with a “Howdy do?” to anyone he would meet; a mother who engaged me constantly with questions about what I thought about this and that, forming the foundation for who I am today: a man who has no “off” switch when it comes to expressing himself.
Friends. My, what would we do without them? I love and appreciate every single one of mine, folks who have stuck with me through the good times and the bad times; they’re the source of so much of the happiness I’ve enjoyed over time.
And speaking of happiness, I can think of nothing more mournful than someone coming to the end of their life wishing that they had “let” themselves be happier. It’s sorrowful, particularly, because the very word, “let,” indicates that they understand that being happy could have been a choice they could have made.
I know, in my life, there have been moments in which I’ve reached for it like a drowning man grasping at a rescuer’s hand and then clinging to that hand as a lost child would grab a hold of his mother upon being found.
I remember such a time when it seemed as though everything in my life was violently ripping apart at the seams and I, to keep life sparking inside me, started writing comedy routines and running them by people at a few venues, and then basking in their applause and laughter – walking away feeling special and appreciated and as happy as I possibly could be considering my dismal reality. Slowly things turned around for me.
When my wife died I was, literally, crushed by the weight of my misery, but there was a part of me that somehow knew that the grieving would end and that I would, once again, feel happy.
Then I looked up one day and the sun and the moon and the stars were still in the sky and my children were by my side, and a woman had come into my life… and on another day I’m looking at a list of regrets, so thankful that none of them speak to me.
And I wish, for all human beings, a life where they are true to themselves; where their work is nicely balanced with rest and play; where they can share their feelings freely, in a spirit of love, with their families and with friends they will hold on to forever. I can just imagine how happy they would be.
Not to mention: regret-free.