“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me,” is the regret most often heard from the lips of the dying. Those were the findings of an Australian palliative nurse. So, if this is true about us, does that mean the primary reason for our personal sufferings in life is because we are too fixated on pleasing others? Can it also be the root of our obsession with youth and beauty? Is this why so many people who should have rich and happy lives simply don’t?
This morning I watched a boisterous group of three year-olds play, “Red light. Green light.” They had trouble getting started. By the time the teacher had the last ones properly lined up, the first ones were already wriggling out of their places. Some hopped on one foot, others giggled and twirled, and one little boy never did get in line. Corralling them was like trying to stop 18 grasshoppers from twitching and leaping; an impossible feat.
For the half hour that I watched, the teacher pleaded for them to “stand still,” “listen to me,” “don’t push Sally,” “stay on the blue line,” “get back in order,” “no talking,” and on and on. When I left, I realized that of the 30 minutes they had for the game, they only actually played about 10 of them. Maybe our lives are like that: two-thirds of the time we align ourselves with the group, or are forced to. The other third we try desperately to be our unique selves and navigate our independent joys.
One would hope that with maturity, we ‘grow out of it.’ However, if that list of regrets is accurate, we just may not. So, I wonder. When my own children reach adulthood, will they have found the unique qualities which make them individuals and pursue them? Or will they, like many, be so influenced by their peers and society that their own true selves get lost in the shuffle?
My grandmother always said, “Example is the greatest teacher,” and she was a great one. These days, though, the young take theirs from computer screens, not flesh and blood people. They are better ‘talking’ with their thumbs than their voices. So, what will be their dying regrets? That they didn’t speak up? In the end, maybe that is the very, same thing.
Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” a non-fiction memoir of her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.