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The Star - Sharing the Nation - A toast to living honestly (3 December 2017)
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As 2017 comes to a close and we head into yet another new year, I want to share this discussion I heard on radio on the subject of regret. It was based on a book by an Australian palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, on The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

The pain of those regrets were so huge that she said she knew she did not want to end up like that. It made so much sense and I thought what a good way to start the new year with a new resolve to live life with courage and to make conscious choices to make it worth living.

According to Ware, the most common regret of the dying is their lack of courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.

This was the most painful regret because as they looked back, they realised that their lives were shaped and defined by others, and their dreams were unfulfilled because of the choices they had made, or not made. And the older you are, the more your regrets centre on the choices not made.

You regret because this was something that was within your control, but you made those choices to make others happy, instead of you happy.

Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with a gay rights activist who was pressured for years by his father to give up being gay (as if that was a choice) and to get married and have children.

One day, in yet another fight with his father, he said: “How many people must be unhappy in order for you to be happy?”

I thought that was a profound statement. Indeed, it was that statement that finally made his father see the light and accepted his son’s sexual identity. I admired him for his courage and honesty to be persistent and frank with his father and to make that difficult decision to be true to himself.

The second most common regret is, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. I guess few people die wishing they had worked harder.

It seems this regret afflicted mostly men who missed out on their children’s youth and the companionship of their wives. They regretted that they had not honoured other aspects of their lives, like care giving and being there for their loved ones.

It’s good to know that many younger men these days make the time to care for their children and actually find joy in that.

Some friends even have regular “date nights” with their husbands, making sure that just the two of them go out for dinner to talk – to catch up with each other’s thoughts and feelings and ideas and plans.

The third most common regret is one that I thought only afflicted emotionally repressed Asians. But it seems everyone wishes they had the courage to voice their feelings. I bet many more women expressed this regret than men as women often suppress their feelings in order to keep peace with others.

These regrets are mostly over relationships. They regret for not speaking up in their own defence and not treating themselves with the kindness they deserve. They regret for not telling their children, partners, friends how much they loved them. They regret staying in, or leaving, or not pursuing relationships.

Such regrets can do damage to body and mind. At best, you feel like punching yourself for not having the courage to speak out against a hurt, an injustice; at worst people develop illnesses and suffer chronic stress because of bitterness and resentment bottled up for months, years or lifetimes.

Whenever I am angry or upset, I will always ask myself if this person or this incident is worth my time and my emotion getting livid over.

Most of the time they are not; and if they are, I will set a time limit to my negative feelings. Usually not more than three days. Then life must go on. Either get the feeling out of your system, or get that toxic person out of your life. Although, I must admit that for those with spouses, this is easier said than done.

An activist friend who works with single mothers said she regretted crying for three years over the breakdown of her marriage. In hindsight, the man was worth just three days of tears. And she should have gotten on with her new life much earlier.

The fourth most common regret is, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Families naturally go into grief in the presence of loved ones dying. But Ware said that person actually wants to live as fully as they can. They want joy brought to the bed, they want to hear laughter, and birds singing.

They want to know what’s going on outside. They don’t want to stop living until the body stops breathing. Old friends tell stories of a past their adult children are not a part of and this brings joy to the dying.

But there are friends who don’t know what to say to a dying person, except look on with grief that the person’s life is coming to an end.

I remember my father who passed away two months short of his 100th birthday expressing indignation when his surau friends came to visit and sat there in silence and sorrow.

When they left, he turned to me and said, “Do they think I am dying?” He still wanted to live and to know what’s going on in the outside world.

The fifth regret, says Ware, is a surprising one: “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice, that life is a choice; and they did not exercise the choices they could have made.

Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, that things were all right, when deep within, they longed to laugh heartily and loudly and feel a lightness of being.

We feel the biggest regrets over things that are within our control. That is why it is such a negative emotion.

So to all those reading this column, do not allow regrets to paralyse your life. There is still time to make the choices you need to make to live the life you want, and not what others expect of you. So, here’s to a new year of living honestly.

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