Friday, January 13, 2012

Living without Regret

There was an excellent article published in The New York Times the other day that resonated with me deeply. It doesn't take long to understand why – the article begins with the following passage:
At 17, I wrote a speech titled, “When You Come to the End of Your Days, Will You Be Able to Write Your Own Epitaph?” It reflected the approach to life I adopted after my mother’s untimely death from cancer at age 49. I chose to live each day as if it could be my last — but with a watchful eye on the future in case it wasn’t. 
My goal was, and still is, to die without regrets.

For those of you who know me well, it should be pretty self-evident why this piece called out to me. It was my very own experiences in the same situation that led me to take on the very same philosophy, and as I discussed in my last post, it's treated me pretty well. Still, it was fascinating to see what people had to say on this issue as they looked back on life, especially as we start a new year.

The article summarizes many of the main points from a new book, called 30 Lessons for Living. I was skeptical at first, but the book is actually the product of the Cornell Legacy Project, which has interviewed over 1,000 older Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata. The article starts with three major components that define most peoples lives: marriage, careers, and parenting, but alas, three components I have not yet had the opportunity to live. More compelling to me personally were the latter three aspects that the article discusses: aging, regrets, and happiness.

On aging, I'll confess that, for the last few years, I've been pretty afraid. One of my (unspoken) justifications for pursuing my gap year and graduate school was my reasoning that as long as I didn't settle down in one place indefinitely, I could avoid being a real adult. If I could keep my life in discrete chunks, I wouldn't have to grow up. But the section on aging begins with another enlightening quote. The experts on aging, those who have aged themselves, say,
“Embrace it. Don’t fight it. Growing older is both an attitude and a process...” The experts’ advice to the young: “Don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.”
This piece of wisdom (combined with a TED talk I recently watched about life's third act) has gone a long way to change my attitudes. Perhaps getting older, reaching that next step, is something I should be looking forward to rather than seeking to put off.

The passage on regrets begins:
“Always be honest” was the elders’ advice to avoid late-in-life remorse. Take advantage of opportunities and embrace new challenges. And travel more when you’re young rather than wait until the children are grown or you are retired.
Okay, I may have been pretty far off on the aging bit, but I think I've got this one pretty much down.

And finally, the passage on happiness reminded me of an old personal maxim that I think I may have forgotten on some level recently:
Happiness as a choice, not the result of how life treats you.
It's amazing – I think I may have actually been happier when I had major parts of my life to be unhappy about. Things have been going so overwhelmingly well these last couple years that I've almost lost that invaluable contrast; if I can be happy given the most unhappy circumstances, I can be happy always. Remembering that sounds like the beginning of new year's resolution I may actually keep.

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