A storm approached. The clouds turned black and camp was over two hours away. After many failed attempts, I gave it one more last ditch effort to capture the beauty of the frozen abyss. In it’s own right, glacier caving high in the Himalayas on the Annapurna Glacier presented a formidable challenge. Attempting to immortalize the experience through pictures proved to be even more demanding.
Finally, the perfect shot. Or at least the best I could do with the limited light and the tight space. There was no time for another one. Korbindra, my Nepalese guide, and I crawled out of the darkness into the remaining light that pierced through the foreboding skies. Three hundred feet away, two assistant guides waited with our packs. All that remained now was a short climb down an inclined wall of ice.
We had to move fast. The storm was not the only concern. Just above us, giant rocks laid precariously on the lip of the ice cave.
I began the descent, carefully placing my ice axes and crampons on each step to avoid slipping. Although my skills on ice were mediocre, I managed to get down safely and rushed away from the danger zone.
Suddenly, a thunderous crash. The massive boulders slammed onto the very path I was on less than a minute ago.
My heart rate skyrocketed. “Holy crap,” I whispered to myself. Any slower down that wall and I would have been crushed.
Almost instantly, my fear turned into joy as I became acutely aware of my own mortality. In that moment, having felt the brush of death, I came alive.
Regrets of Dying
Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” He started a multibillion-dollar product line – the iPhone – shortly thereafter.
Our mortality is our most powerful ally, yet most of us live every day blissfully ignorant of its presence. We move through our entire lives without even contemplating the reality that it will one day end. Why else would 80% (according to several studies) of Americans be unhappy in their jobs and choose to continue working in those very same jobs?
Sleepwalking through life, we push all our dreams and desires to ‘someday.’ But someday may as well be never. It is not without reason that cemeteries are the wealthiest places on earth. For they are filled with millions of unwritten books, unsung songs and unfulfilled dreams.
For most of us, only when we come close to claiming our place in the earth do we start to discover the treasures that live deep within us.
Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse in Australia, spent years working with people during the last 12 weeks of their lives. While caring for her dying patients, she recorded their final regrets and found common themes that she documented in a book titled, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”
Three of the top five regrets were:
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I didn’t work so hard my whole life.”
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret?
The question is not meant to simply trigger the age-old cliché of “live every day like it is your last.” This question is intended to have you actually look into the future and picture yourself on your deathbed. Visualize your family around you. Picture them staring into your feeble frame. Really immerse yourself in this reality. From there, ask yourself that question.
Using Death as a Motivator for Life
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
Ancient samurai warriors believed that every day one must meditate on their inevitable death and consider themselves as dead. Their ideal practice involved picturing themselves dying in battle, drowning in an ocean, burned by a fire, falling from a cliff or any number of ways a person can be killed.
There is nothing morbid or morose about either of these practices. Death is simply the other side of life. Within its embrace lies the most powerful impulse of the human spirit, the desire to live a meaningful and passionate life.
I have lost many friends to drugs and war. One of my closest buddies in the Marine Corps was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. To this day, I wish it had been me instead of him. But there is nothing I can do about it now except honor his memory. Remembering his death gives me the strength to live my life to the fullest and help others do the same, especially when things get tough. If I was meant to live and he was not, then I must prove to myself that there is worth to my life. His death continues to help me give meaning to my life.
My own encounters with the grim reaper have only reinforced that meaning.
By learning how to die, I have learned how to live.
Buddha himself said, “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.” And he was enlightened.
If a multi-billionaire and an enlightened being both agree about the validity of a practice, there must be something to it.
By embracing death, we gain perspective on life. The power of perspective reveals that the highs of life can never be as high without the lows. Without one or the other, life becomes nothing more than a static line. Something like the one that you see when a person’s heart stops beating.
Meditating on death is simply the act of acknowledging the end in order to fully appreciate the now. Thus bringing passion back into life.
For it is only when we risk losing something that we truly find its value. And what could be a greater risk than putting all that is, our very existence, on the line for something grand?
Reigniting the Inner Fire
After working in a 9-5 job for almost one and a half years, in March of 2012 I finally quit when I noticed myself dying. I took $15,000 of the money I saved up, which was almost all of it, and spent one month dragging a 190-pound sled across 350 miles in temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees on the second largest icecap in the world in Greenland.
The constant misery and the daily struggle brought me closer to life. It allowed me to feel the pulse of life course through my veins. Although death was not a regular concern on the icecap, it did present itself as a threat in the form of crevasses early in the expedition and polar bears during the end of it. Nonetheless, the suffering proved to be a worthy companion of death. Both provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the joys and comforts of life. Collectively, the experience reignited the fire within me to embrace my life and create my own destiny.
I returned home from the expedition with little money and built two businesses from the ground up. I have been living life on my terms ever since.
Whether it is quitting your job to build a business, running a marathon or traveling to unknown parts of the world, any worthy endeavor requires risk, struggle and sacrifice. Some of these things may even terrify you. But ask yourself, is the fear of the unknown stronger than the most powerful of fears, the fear of a wasted life?
To help you answer that question, here are some steps to take to reignite your fire and embrace the most powerful impulse of the human spirit, your mortality:
For starters, practice the meditation mentioned above. Simply sit down, close your eyes and concentrate on the meaning of death. See your own death and feel the impact of it. The time it takes to practice this meditation is less important than the emotion it produces within you. It is vital for you to really feel what it means to be at the end of your life. That emotion will drive you to make the changes you want. Once you awake from this meditation, take one action to drive your life forward, so that when you do reach that point in time many moons from now, you will be able to answer, “No, I have no regrets!”
For those of you wishing to take it to the next level, get out there and actually experience the presence of death or its close counterpart, suffering. Take action to put yourself in situations of discomfort and risk. This could be in the form of deep sea diving, skydiving, mountaineering, traveling to unknown parts of the world, running a marathon, anything that pushes you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Within the unknown, you will find infinite possibilities to value every single moment you have on this planet. First, you must take a leap.
The choice is yours.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the question I proposed above:
If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret most?
Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Author Bio: Akshay Nanavati has spent 7 months in Iraq with the US Marines, quit a corporate job, traveled to six of the seven continents, explored some of the most hostile environments on the planet and now he works for himself. Through Existing2Living he helps others push their limits and live lives filled with joy and passion.
Photo by: Hartwig HKD
My regret would be that all I focused on was work. And it really is almost too late now.
Karl Staib says
I’ve done so many wonderful things in my life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I don’t regret many of them. I do regret a few things which I’m starting to remedy.
1. I should travel more. (In July I went to 3 states and another country. Still need to go to more adventurous countries though.)
2. Building a business that fits my personality. (I’m slowly getting better at working with my ideal clients, but I still work with a few people I would rather say no to.)
3. Being more relaxed about stupid stuff. (Some days I get all worked up and stressed out and a month later I laugh at myself. I’m trying to stop repeating this pattern, but old habits die hard.
Thanks for a great post! I should write something like this for my work happiness blog.
That somehow I didn’t love my daughter enough for her to love me back.
I would regret not taking more time off from work to spend with a family who loves me, but who I rarely see. Right now I tell myself that my crazy travel schedule is temporary, but I know I need to make some changes very soon.
Jegede Ayo says
I want to live a passionate life. I lost my parents to the cold hands of death at a tender age. It affected me, but thanks be to God for being there for me in spite my losses. Now I just want to live the best, simple life possible – a life where I follow my dreams as best as I can, raise a loving family, and give something back to this world before I’m gone. I striving to make this happen now.
I would regret most that I didn’t take care of my SELF and I didn’t respect ME enough.
Great article! Inspiring story. The thing I would regret the most is not to be around for my family anymore. To take action is a great thing, but taking the risks where things are getting purposely dangerous is for when you are young – When you get older, you just want to avoid the trouble (smaller risks) … or maybe it is just me 🙂
Dick Savidge says
This is a timely reminder!
I actually worked myself into sickness I think sometimes. I worked 13 years at a job I loved, but it was too much for me physically and mentally to work 12 hour days and commute 2 hours and raise two children by myself. I came down with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my 40’s.. Now it seems I suffer all the time with chronic pain. I can no longer do many of the things I once took for granted. Still living with pain does make me appreciate the beauty of the world around me more because I have the time today to reflect on it. I also appreciate the moments when nothing hurts. I wish I had the guts to walk away from that job before it took my health like you did.
Sandra Hamlett says
My biggest regret has been not living the life I want and settling for a life of convenience. Instead of having the courage to say, “No this isn’t for me.” I was nice and loyal and remained in a relationship that suffocated me mentally and spiritually. Thankfully the universe jumped in to save me. Now it’s up to me to finally go for it. I love the idea of meditating on death. I will add this to my daily meditation practice to push me forward. Thanks so much for this inspiring post.
I find myself constantly trying to balance what will nurture me and what I need to do as part of that nurturing that involves other people and causes. I don’t want to lie on my deathbed regretting that I had the opportunity to make the world a better place and didn’t do it. I’d like to be able to balance what fulfills me in all areas.
Valerie Parv says
I love my work as a writer, sometimes having to remind myself I’m actually “working”. Over a long marriage, my late husband and I spent more on travel than anything else, surprising those who expected our everyday life to be more extravagant. But we lived for ourselves, acquiring what we needed rather than to impress although we lived well by our own standards. When he died 5 years ago, I thought of all the places we’d seen and the adventures we’d done together and wouldn’t swap any of it for things. I am so, so glad we chose as we did and will continue the practice in my life as it is now.
I believe we create regrets through the choices we make day to day. And I agree, asking how I will feel in X years if I do/don’t do something is the best way of regret-proofing life.
One thing I already regret, but am working on now: Not spending more time on my passion for writing and playing music. I ignored my passion because I didn’t think I had time for nearly two decades. Now I dabble in a hobbyist band, and it has improved my outlook and attitude in all walks of life.
Not learning to trust my intuition and not learning the art of forgiveness. From where I stand now, those would be my two greatest regrets.
I’ve spent twenty years working in a hospital and around death. I am completely miserable not just from what I do but from what I see. The problem is the money in too good. I hope I can break the cycle before its too late for my own peace of mind.
Hien Le says
What did you do? I thought that providing the medical services to others is the most rewarding thing, leaving aside the money stuff.
What would I regret?
Not being grateful for my wife. Not communicating more with her. Expecting too much and not telling her. I am needy–maybe too much.
Not working hard either in school or my current job. Excellence comes from hard work–and I have consistently failed to produce that. I am an underachiever and I hate that. I also hate my current job–and have for years but I own the company and owe more than it’s worth now so I feel stuck.
Trying to bring in others into the family who needed support in a backward/wrong and ultimately destructive way. Looking to them to complete the family I always wanted, and will, sadly, never get. And they still need support but now…
Never being happy. Always worrying about tomorrow and what could happen.
Not being brave or strong enough to chuck it all, declare bankruptcy, move to Maui work in a coffee shop, read books and surf.
Never ever being happy.
Natalie Wheeler says
I spent most of my life working in the corporate world and recently stopped and started working online. This has allowed me more freedom to work from anywhere and do more things. My next goal is to break through the invisible walls that are still holding me back so I can go/travel where ever I want.
I’m thinking about the people I want around me while I die. I need to make sure those relationships are strong. I need to be more accepting of people where they are in order for that to happen. Be kind.
I regret every single work day that I have not had the courage and determination to leave my current job. They treat us horribly and it has a negative impact on every aspect of my life; health, relationships, etc. I need to leave before I have a heart attack. I’m only 38 but feel like I’m going to die any day from the stress.
Many of us have the responsibility to provide for our families. When you get a good job that pays the bills it’s so hard to give up the “certain” good job to pursue an “uncertain” dream. The sacrifices and consequences aren’t mine alone but shared by all in the family. Rather than feel regretful about this good job, I chose to see it as a blessing and an honorable choice. It’s a change in perspective that works for me.
Hien Le says
I am in total agreement with you on your perspective of life situations. That is why we need to have an “risk-informed decision making process” to guide us in our pursuit of happiness.
I regret the decisions I made that negatively affected people years later which I did not contemplate at the time. One decision of yesteryear can make a difference not only onto one person but on many surrounding that person or situation. To live now and in the moment with these thoughts in mind, allows one to want to live wholeheartedly, honestly without regret knowing that how you live the balance of today can truly make a positive influence on those around you and those around them.
Thank you, as always M & A – very timely post for me.
I am so acutely aware of my mortality that it has the reverse effect…”They” say to get up and go get what you want…what if what I want is a family?
I would regret all the roads not travelled, literally and figuratively, all the creative things I could have done and couldn’t be bothered to right then. I would regret not trying to be a better mum to my daughter (who’s turned out ok anyway, mainly cos of her lovely dad). I would regret not learning how to speak my mind without putting people’s backs up. I would regret not meditating more and devoting more of my life to Dharma once I’d found it.
Patrick Roden says
After a very long and challenging night in The Trauma Center at OHSU I wrote this line:
“The closer to death we are, the closer to life we are.”
Patrick Roden RN PhD
kathy h. says
This post is very deep, but also very important daily life and it’s lessons. I would say I have some regrets being older and living life’s lessons through, but also from my bad decisions I have made when I was younger I have grown and become smarter. It really depends how deep you think about a regret, I think. Because if I would have made my life decisions differently, I would not be in the state of happiness that I am with my life now. Also, my life is not perfect as no one’s is. I believe in God too, and that makes the process easier on me.
Akshay Nanavati says
@Jody. It’s never too late. Colonel Sanders started KFC at 65 while living on social security checks. Please feel free to reach out to me via my contact form on my site Jody, would be more than happy to support you in creating a plan that allows you to focus on other things outside of work.
Akshay Nanavati says
@Karl. Awesome that you are proactively changing your life to be more in line with the way you want it to go. Glad you liked the post as well. As far as traveling to adventurous countries, I highly recommend Nepal, one of my favorites. Although I haven’t been to Patagonia next, that is next on my list and I have heard nothing but good things, so that might be a good place to check out as well. Regarding “being more relaxed about stupid stuff,” I recommend the book “You are not your brain.” Let me know if you have any questions about it. Hope that helps Karl. Wish you all the best in your future endeavors and I look forward to reading your post on your blog.
Mary Lynn says
Spent most of my life worrying that others dislike me as much as I dislike myself! Not good enough for anyone even me. In my heart I know this is not true, so I will continue to work on my issue with help.
I will regret not relaxing, thereby enjoying all that life offers. To be able to sit in the sunshine in my backyard and not worry about the laundry. To just sit & stare out a window, without thinking the house needs vacuumed. I’d like to have a hobby, but feel/think I can’t take the time off from whatever needs doing to find one.
Thank you for a very thought-provoking post – you really are helping others, me included.
If I died tomorrow I would regret not seeing how my children grew up and became the people they are meant to be. And I would regret not volunteering more. (I still want to help with adult literacy programs in my community). I love my life and try every day to find the good although that has been a journey and I didn’t always live that way. My parents are quite elderly and declining physically before my eyes. I spend quality time with them and love them fiercely as I know their time in this life is coming to a close. I can love them and be a witness to their journey. “Live every day like it is your last… because someday it will be.”
I am in my 50’s and my biggest regret in life is that I have never let myself fall in love. I am afraid to let go.
I regret being a functioning alcoholic. It is stealing my life away from me and my kids. Post divorce, I have very little self esteem. I regret that my life is out of my control.
I would regret having wasted away all my days being unable to move myself to anything. I can’t even remember the past 3 years because it’s been like one long day, always the same.
At 50, were I to die tomorrow, I would regret having lived safely and timidly – a life fulfilling others’ expectations versus a bold, fearless life realizing my dreams.
Hi guys, just wanted to let you know your blog is a huge inspiration to me and I’ve nominated you for the Sunshine Bloggers Award. You can find details about it here – diaryofanirnbrujunkie.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/sunshine-blogger-award/ xx
David Rapp says
Regret is huge. Brene Brown books are what I recommend. But I am going to trump the very process Akshay lays out so well.
All of this leads to one thing…what the hell are you going to do about it? Seriously. I can swim with Great White Sharks, find enlightenment, etc. but I have to put into practice to make it stick.
If you can watch one hour of television, then you can take back that one hour and apply it to something else. Call AA is you have a drinking problem, read a recommended book, volunteer in your community, write a poem, call a friend, write a letter, write out your bucket list, clean out the closet, the list is endless. But you have to start!!
I have hit the gym 38 days in a row. Why? To lose the weight, get back in shape so I can live stronger and longer for my wife and son. Its not just for me anymore. I want to be the best David I can be for them, so they benefit from my changes. I cannot leave them out of my thinking.
The one error I see in these responses is a series self-imposed limitations: I want to be happier, be a writer, start my own business, …and then what? To be a better parent, to be a better spouse, a better boss, a better teacher, to share my gifts-talents-abilities with others…now we are talking.
SO I’ll post this out there: David Rapp died today two days shy of his 100th birthday while touring his beloved city of Segovia in Spain. He toured the world visiting almost 100 countries, 50 states, all the Provinces in Canada and all 7 continents. His greatest blessings are his 12 great-grandchildren, four grandchildren and one son: and a 62 year marriage to Beth. At 44 David gave himself permission to build a new life in his mind, and spent the next 55 years living it out one day at a time. He earned his doctorate, was an avid teacher and mentor, and built a small empire helping people construct their lives based on their dreams. He will be greatly missed.
Every tomorrow is a today that was never promised. Risking your life is not about confronting death, its about greeting it with smile and saying “not today old friend.” But if you need to confront it, remember Fortune favor the Bold.
jim sprague says
Those that look back will die of remorse!
50,000 people are in Yankee Stadium, everyone throws their problems on the field but they have to take someone else`s problem back—guess what. Everyone takes their own problems back. words of- The Honourable Alan B. Sprague
Fantastic post. May have cured me on the spot of worrying and stressing about stuff ever again. Thanks!
jim sprague says
Great to hea,r Murielle! Smile, and keep your eye on the road ahead.
What a great article! Thanks. I needed to be reminded to live now.
Monica P. says
This post was so deep. It really got me and brought me to tears. My regrets are the product of my perfectionism, my insecurities and my fear of major changes. What hurts me is not knowing how to get out of the situation I am in today. I love what I do; I love my job, but dislike the people and the environment I have to work with daily. I feel trapped because I can’t stop working to venture in what I really would like to do, as I am single and can’t afford to lose my health insurance and my only income.
charla rae says
So many mistakes and wrong turns come to mind when contemplating tomorrow being my last day in this life. But which one should I choose, how do I know where I would be at this very moment, had I not experienced every one of those dark times now creeping into this moment of consideration. I guess I would choose not to regret any one of those so painful times. Perhaps because I would be so caught up in the regret of knowing that for me there would be no tomorrow night, and I would not be here to keep deliciously warm and cuddled up with my husband, my soul mate, my everlasting love.
Your article hit a nerve Akshay.
We must be on a similar trajectory – I too quit my job in 2012 in pursuit of life on my own terms. For me it came after a slow and controlled destruction of my life over a period of years. In hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me because it forced me to ask the very questions that you have listed. Although the answers didn’t come easily, my journey has brought me half way across the world where I have the luxury of waking up in the morning and doing the things that align with my life’s purpose. I don’t know what’s around the corner, but that fact alone makes my life worth living.
Whatever your circumstances and however big the goal, all I can say is have the faith to know that if you leap, the net will appear.
Peggy Miller says
I would regret everything. I have lived my entire life either for everyone else or in fear. Even typing these words is scary.
This is a key one for me, and one I believe everyone should address regularly. I call it my “Big Mack Truck test.” As I am driving down the highway and randomly see a big truck coming from the other direction, I will ask myself, “If I knew that truck was going to cross the median and spread me over a city block, what would I regret” and whatever comes to mind – I deal with right away because who knows when the next big Mack WILL be mine? I’ve embarrassed friends over the years by calling them out of the blue and telling them I love them, but one I will never forget. My kids were about 1 and three years of age respectively, and the regret that came to mind was that someone else would have to tell them I loved them because they wouldn’t remember hearing it from me. As soon as I got home i took my video camera out and made a little video for each of them so that if I died in the next minutes, they could forever watch their personal video and hear me telling them directly. I have updated those videos as appropriate over the years (they are now 18 & 21). (I also have one for my wife).
So i recommend that everyone adopt the “Big Mack Truck test” and may you be pleasantly surprised at some of the beautiful things that will come out of it.
Bob Fletcher says
For over 30 years I have kept a diary.
This year is different – after having been told there are only a few months of my life left. My diary this year is a photo journal with a fresh picture daily. Not only am I living more fully, but leaving a happy record for family and friends. Life has a fresh and challenging meaning.
If I were to die tomorrow, my regret would be to have believed in myself more, like so many others have. Self esteem, well, lack of, is one of the biggest negatives that a person can have. It is also a constant that one must work on, well in my case anyway. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.
Megan Pangan says
If I was going to die tomorrow, I think I might have regretted not considering having children. I always go back and forth about this in my head, but I think that’s what I might regret.
Linda Sand says
I regret not understanding that how I lived when young would affect how I could live when old. My mind and body are now paying the price of the poor decisions I made then. If I could go back I would eat better, exercise better, and work more on my social skills.
What a wonderful post, like so many others, so timely…
My regrets if I were to die tomorrow… ignoring my intution even when it screamed at me, forgetting wonderful but hard learned lessons, not taking a moment every day for simply being grateful -grateful for the most amazing daughters, grateful that I have choices when others dont. I would regret not looking up at the stars every night and I would regret that I treated myself so poorly when I loved and cherished those who didnt return it.
Humbled, blessed and grateful that for my suffering that I must ask myself this question everyday.