It’s no secret for those who know me, and perhaps not, either, for people who read the blog regularly, that I think a lot about existential issues: what gives life meaning, what it means to lead an authentic life, how we can connect to others in genuine ways and … the terrible truth that we’re going to die. I can’t really help it; it’s just what I think about, and in one way or another, informs most everything that I do.
Recently I stumbled across an interesting piece on the (always great) psychology website Creativity Post about meditating on existential issues as a way to develop deeper meaning in our lives. We’re all gonna die, but not all of us will really live, the article suggests, and maintains that reflecting on a study outlining the top five regrets of the dying can be a useful method for meaning meaningful choices about our lives in the here and now: “Dying people don’t wish they had more money or that they had twerked on Robin Thicke at the VMAs. They dream of more enjoyment and authentic pursuits with the people they loved. If we are to live well, we’ll need to re-evaluate how we’re currently living and pursue valuable goals, purpose, friendship and happiness.” So I got to thinking: maybe it would be interesting to reflect on the top five regrets of the dying and how they might inform our library practice. So here’s a bit how I think they might inform mine …
The first major regret of the dying is:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware comments:
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
It’s no surprise to me that this is the most common regret of the dying; it’s also (one of) the most common complaints of the unhappy living. As psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan put it, a “common theme from the clinical literature is that psychological ill health is the all too typical product of alienation from one’s true self.” It also makes sense, then, that self-esteem and a personally authentic life are connected, and that our experiences – and life more generally – is meaningful when our actions and behaviors are determined from within (overview of the scientific literature here).
This, of course, is an old philosophical idea, as reading philosophers from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Sartre tells us. The ideas are also central to humanistic and existential psychology, as exemplified by (let’s face it), two of my intellectual heroes, Carl Rogers and Irvin Yalom. Rogers describes that individuals in distress, as they grow in the therapeutic relationship, tend to move away from pleasing others: they “do not wish to be what they “ought” to be, whet her that imperative is set by parents, or by the culture … the client moves toward being autonomous … he becomes responsible for himself [and] decides what activities and ways of behaving have meaning.” Similarly, Yalom argues that one achieves happiness by “plunging oneself into the “true” vocation of the human being, which, as Kierkegaard said, “is to will to be oneself” and cites approvingly the Hasidic rabbi, Susya, “who shortly before his death, said, “When I get to heaven they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Instead, they will ask ‘Why were you not Susya? Why did you not become what only you could become’?” Rogers summarizes the point, stating that: “The best way I can state this aim of life, as I see it coming to light in my relationship with my clients, is to use the words of Søren Kierkegaard – “to be that self which one truly is” (self-plagiarism courtesy of College & Research Libraries).
Bonnie Ware: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
Frankly, I have a pretty low opinion of hard work for hard work’s sake, but I find a lot of meaning and value in working hard at things that matter to me. I think this translates, for me, to something more like “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working hard at stuff I don’t really find meaningful, and spent more time working hard at stuff that I do,” which ends up relating an awful lot to 1: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not what others expected of me.
One thing I try to do that seems to fall under the guise of “not working so hard” is I really try not to do anything just because I might get some professional or personal recognition from it. I think that is a terrible trap that leads to doing more and more things just because you think it’ll benefit you Many people drive themselves crazy in order to get ahead but all they do is get further and further away from themselves. Or so it seems to me.
Of course, any job is going to have things commonly thought of as annoying or busywork (committee work, etc.) but even that stuff can ultimately end up being interesting as you make it for yourself. For example, just through pursuing my interest in pedagogy on campus, I got an invite to be a board member for our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. That satisfies some of my campus service, and is also super interesting. It’s been my experience that authentic curiosity is really contagious and can spread to many aspects of your work if you let it.
Still, though, there are many times when I’m at home with my fiancee and am worried about some work thing and I’m like, “Man, the thing I really care about is living a meaningful life with this person and writing and being creative and (at work) connecting with students- why on earth am I so caught up in this?” I don’t think anyone is immune to that but I think we can certainly mitigate the control it has on the way we live our lives.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
This is the one out of the five that right away I think man, this is one I really struggle with as a librarian. In a lot of ways I’m way too nice and have an habit I’ve been really struggling with of wanting everyone to think I’m a nice boy, especially in professional contexts, so I really identify with Bonnie Ware’s statement that many people keep their feelings underneath “in order to keep peace with others.” You want to be collegial so maybe you are less assertive than you might otherwise be. It’s hard for me in professional contexts in a way that it’s not particularly hard for me in personal ones (I’ll tell you about my feelings for about two days if I ever get the chance, I promise). So I”m working harder on being more assertive and stating my feelings as my feelings in a compassionate way, professional way, even if people might disagree with them. I try to accept myself where I”m at because beating yourself up doesn’t help. As Rogers once put it, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
I am not a person with an enormous amount of friends but the ones I do have are very good ones. Most of my friends from library school, (e.g., my esteemed co-blogger) were people I worked with at UNC’s undergraduate library rather than people I knew from class. One thing I’ve really tried to do with library school friends is seek out ways we can work together on projects professionally. You don’t need to be near them to do this; I regularly Skype with Dani in Southern California and my friend Alex all the way back in Maryland about projects we’re working on together. I recommend this as a great way to stay in touch with people you like and have fun while you are working on stuff that interests you (and, yes, will look good on your resume and (perhaps) tenure file, too). If you’re lucky enough to have friends with similar ideas, try to think of ways you might be able to collaborate, even from a distance. You’ll enjoy it.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
When I think of letting myself be happier, what I really think of is “I wish I’d taken it easier on myself.” I wish I’d accept myself more and just be okay with whatever I am.
Is doing this a choice? The existentialists certainly think so, and, honestly, I’m inclined to agree. You can choose to work on projects you want to work on. You can choose to say no to stuff you don’t want to work on. It really may be that simple.
The hard thing, I think, is finding the self-confidence to do it. I think the the thing that makes this hard is that most people haven’t been accepted for who they are; they’ve been filled with ought’s and shoulds about what they ought to be and what they ought to do, and it makes them very afraid to open themselves up in real ways. This was the case for me, at any rate, and it wasn’t till I had people telling me, over and over again, that I was perfectly fine just as I was that I was able to begin to stop shoulding all over myself and just try to let myself be. I’m not going to be perfect at work. I”m not going to teach every student everything I want. Sometimes I’ll doubt myself and whether the things that seem very important to me are even worth doing. The trouble only comes when I get mad at myself about that. In those times, I’m working on letting myself be happier – to take it easier on myself and let myself be.
Let’s Address Some Objections, Shall We?
Let me try to put some of that philosophical training to use and anticipate and respond to an objection It’s the one I’ve heard a million times throughout my life. Let’s call it the “Uncle Mike” objection, after my Uncle Mike (i.e., the Michael part of Kevin Michael Klipfel):
Uncle Mike Objection (UMO): You can’t just go around doing what you want to do all the time, Kevin. Sometimes you have to do lots of things you don’t want to do. That’s life. Nobody said life was about doing what you wanted all the time. It’s about fulfilling your obligations. It’s about being responsible.
Now, I feel the same way now about UMO that I did at age 8: I think it just fundamentally misses the point entirely. What I mean is this. There’s a pretty trivial sense that, yeah, life involves doing stuff you don’t really want to do a lot of the time: it’s annoying to have to go grocery shopping sometimes; paying bills is not fun; there are certain social niceties you have to do (as Holden Caulfield pointed out) in order to stay alive in this world, e.g., saying “I’m glad to have met you” to someone you’re not really glad to have met at all, and so forth. But you do it because, like Frank said, that’s life. But there’s other stuff, more important stuff, that you really don’t have to do at all. You have choices. You choose to be responsible – as an autonomous, self-directed individual who can decide for yourself what has meaning to you and can act accordingly.
Carl Rogers put the point this way:
[The autonomous individual] gradually chooses the goals toward which he wants to move. He becomes responsible for himself. He decides what activities and ways of behaving have meaning for him, and what do not.
It’s an interesting sense of what it means to be “responsible” in this world, one which the UMO entirely ignores. The UMO assumes that obligations are externally imposed. The autonomous individual – the existentialist, if you will – doesn’t seem to think this. They chooses their life. Here’s what I mean.
Consider a non-work related example: Someone I know who knows I recently became engaged asked about my fiancee and I’s wedding plans. I told her we planned to get married just the two of us somewhere nice. It’s unconventional (I guess) but that’s what would be meaningful to us, so that’s what we want to do. But this person was basically like, well, you can”t do that. You have to have a wedding. Why not just have a small one? and so on and so forth for a really long time. It would be merely annoying were it not the way most people live: they think there’s stuff you must do. And this is precisely what the 5 rules of the dying are warning you against.
My grandmother said the same thing. When I told her my wedding plans I may as well have well just gone ahead and shot her. You have to have your mother there, she said. She will be so sad if she’s not there! And so will I!
I don’t doubt either sentiment and I don’t particularly enjoy displeasing my mother, either (my Nana maybe a little). But you do have a choice. You can do the thing that makes you happy, and maybe your Mom is going to be a little disappointed or you can live the life you want to live. It’s up to you.
Now it may certainly be true, in the UMO sense, that a wedding will inherently involve doing things I don’t want to do. Other things equal, I’d rather not have to go down to the courthouse in L.A. to get a marriage license. I’d rather just have the marriage license fairy mail me one. Instead of having to fly to an interesting conference I want to go to and deal with all the hassles of that, I’d rather just teleport to that other city. In these senses, the UMO is undoubtedly true.
But it’s not true in any actually interesting, substantial way. The choices we ultimately make that will determine whether we’re true to ourselves or not – in either a professional or personal context – aren’t trivial ones that we have no real control over (like having to stop for gas before heading to Palm Springs, or needing to show up to (possibly very boring) department meetings, or having to show up at work at 9am). They’re things like those outlined in the 5 regrets of the dying: choosing to be real in our choices about our working lives. Choosing to focus on what matters to you personally in your life over professional “success” as determined by someone other than you. Choosing (kindly) to say what you feel even if it might not be well-received.
Here, ultimately, is what I”m saying: lots of times life involves having to do stuff you don’t want to do. But it’s got not much to do with anything that actually matters. What seems to actually matter is stuff like the 5 regrets of the dying. And those things have to do with being responsible for what’s meaningful to you. You spend a lot of time at work. It’s important to choose what’s meaningful to you, there, too.
I invite people to share in the comments section how they try to deal with each of these possible 5 regrets in their own library practice: their struggles, successes, and so forth. These things are, rather obviously, things I, and every other human being on earth, are constantly grappling with, and I think it would be excellent to have a dialogue about it so we can learn from each other.