Learning from what we regret

“Guard against every kind of greed,” Jesus warned his followers, because “life is not measured by how much you own.”

That’s a warning that our consumer culture tends to ignore. Advertisers constantly invite us to do the opposite: measure ourselves against others, and assess our value based on what we own. Under pressure from marketing and the scrutiny of our peers, we may well fall in line and keep up with fashions, throw out that old sofa, or upgrade our phone. There is a social risk to rejecting the claims of consumerism.

Of course, in our hearts we know that what makes a life worthwhile lies elsewhere. There have been many attempts to narrow it down to a list or measure it. Perhaps one of the most personal ways to think about it is to consider what we regret.

Bronnie Ware is a palliative nurse in Australia. She has spent her career caring for people in their final moments, and over the years she has observed some repeating patterns in the things people say as they reflect on their lives. She has written about it in a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Here are those five regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

When we think back on our lives, what we regret is being inauthentic, and putting our energies into the wrong things. Ware comments that almost all male patients wished they hadn’t worked so hard, which suggests there is a tendency among us men to find our value in our work. Community is also important.

Those five regrets ought to give us pause for reflection on our own lives, but I think they can inform the way we think about a fair and sustainable economy too. As things are currently configured, the economy practically breeds those regrets:

  1. Advertising and marketing constantly loads expectations onto us.
  2. Many of us have to work longer hours than we would like.
  3. We are encouraged to keep up appearances and soldier on, and expressing our feelings is often seen as weakness.
  4. Long hours, regional inequalities and individualistic consumption all work against community.
  5. Consumerism feeds on discontent, keeps us hungry and offers us hollow promises of happiness.

What if we took those common regrets, and tried to work out how to make them less common? Perhaps we would shorten working hours. We might control advertising and reduce its pervasive creep into our lives. We could invest in public space and shared experiences rather than private consumption, creating places that bring people together and foster community.

Some of those involve long term political change, but we can start with our own lives and our own spheres of influence. Could we work part time? Or could we influence our employer to make sure that nobody is working more than they want to, and that family life isn’t suffering? Can we demonstrate how to express our feelings healthily, to our children, our friends, and our church?

If we can work to build community, practice sharing, and seek the happiness of others, we might be able to play our part in reducing those common regrets, and creating the kind of flourishing human lives that our creator intends for us.

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