Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  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 didn’t work 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”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

***

Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

***

Cross-posted with my “Musings of a Gen Joneser” personal blog.

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

Education for life’s afternoons and evenings

One of my favorite passages pertaining to the importance of adult learning is found in psychiatrist Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933). He asks, “Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?” He answers:

No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.

To borrow from Jung, we sure could use some schools to help us understand, shape, and engage the afternoons and evenings of our lives. I’m not necessarily talking about formal degree programs, although they may well enter the picture for older adults seeking a career switch. Rather, I’m thinking more along the lines of adult education centers — both physical and virtual — that offer affordable, interactive, community-building learning experiences on topics related to life’s big picture topics.

As a possible model, I nominate The School of Life, a London-based, global learning center that offers courses, counseling, and publications “dedicated to developing emotional intelligence” by applying “psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life.” Their offerings cover personal relationships, the workplace, the self and others, and culture. Here’s a three-minute video that describes more about their offerings:

The School of Life’s originally opened in London, and it has since added centers in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Berlin, Istanbul, Melbourne, Paris, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Sydney, Taipei, and Tel Aviv. I would be delighted to see one in Boston!

Regardless of whether The School of Life is the preferred model, my larger point is that themes of lifelong learning, lifespan development, and inevitable aging lead us to ask what educational opportunities exist for people to learn and grow together during life’s second half. Alas, I submit that we face a gaping shortage of such options. Especially given the aging populations of many nations, it would be great to see more “colleges for forty-year-olds” (and older, of course!) to help people make the most of their lives.

Charles Hayes on unfinished business

My favorite Hayes book

Recently author and philosopher Charles D. Hayes shared these thoughts on his Facebook page:

Have you ever wondered what could, should, or might have been? Or, if perhaps, the best book ever written was not published, the best orator never made a speech, the best voice never sang, the best athlete never played sports, and so on down the road of life experience? I think it’s more likely than not, that all these examples are plausible.

And just as feasible, is the likelihood that the unfinished business of every person who dies unexpectedly could represent an aspirational loss, amounting to an existential deficit for the living, on par with books never published. Something to think about in keeping one’s affairs in order.

Charles is one of my favorite authors and thinkers, and in recent years we’ve become friends via Facebook. I’ve touted his writings on this blog many times. He often goes deep in his thinking and writing. This was one of his simpler “ponder this” thoughts that invites deeper contemplation.

The term unfinished business resonates strongly with me, as I’m sure it does with many folks of middle age and beyond. It becomes especially relevant when you realize that the clock is ticking, that you no longer have seemingly endless amounts of time to do what you’d like to do.

So what’s your unfinished business?

Are you sitting on a great idea for a book or collection of short stories? Maybe becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King is a long shot, but you could publish your work and build a neat little (or not so little) readership for your work.

Do you have dreams of running up and down the court as part of a championship basketball team? OK, you probably won’t be playing with or against LeBron James, but you just might find an adult hoops league that is right for your athletic aspirations.

Would you like to play the piano like this guy? Well, that might be a stretch — performers like the remarkable Jack Gibbons are rare — but perhaps a few piano lessons might reveal more talent at the keyboard than you ever imagined you possessed.

Yup, Charles’s words have once again given me an excuse to be a shameless hawker of avocations and hobbies, which I think can be among the joys and good havens of our lives. They can be gift to you and to others, and in some cases be positively life-changing.

Related posts

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry? (2018)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife (2010, rev. 2018)

 

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

Bartlet (l) and McGarry (r) confer

Dear readers, I confess that this is a bit of a ramble, a lot of thinking out loud in digital form. It’s about my generational cohort — the one dubbed Generation Jones, i.e., late Boomers and early Gen Xers born between 1954 and 1965 — and how we might contribute to the world in the years to come.

One of my favorite television characters is Leo McGarry from “The West Wing,” the Emmy Award-winning political drama that ran on NBC for seven seasons. The late John Spencer, a supremely underrated actor, played McGarry, a politically savvy and trusted close advisor to President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

A favorite West Wing episode comes late in the series (season 6, episode 12). McGarry is returning to White House duties after a heart attack and bypass surgery, and the Bartlet Administration has only a year left in its second term. The President is fatigued due to a chronic illness, and McGarry is struggling to regain his health and his role in the Oval Office. Too often the Administration is letting events control it, rather than the other way around. Leo senses that maybe the President and his inner circle are simply running out the clock, while trying resting on their laurels.

In a great scene featuring McGarry and the President, Leo challenges his long-time friend and fellow political war horse to push hard during their last year in office: “Both of us, sir, this is our last game. Let’s leave it all out on the field.” With the President’s approval, Leo calls a late night meeting for the senior staff, during which they begin to map out an ambitious policy agenda for the Bartlet Administration’s final 365 days.

A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

I love that scene between McGarry and the President. Yeah, it is corny and doesn’t bear any resemblance to today’s Washington D.C. But for pure inspiration, it works for me.

And maybe it even speaks to me. Let’s leave it all out on the field. When I think of fellow members of Generation Jones, these words come to mind as a potential rallying cry for our (hopefully many!) remaining years.

Today’s Gen Jonesers are roughly between 52 and 64 years old. In terms of traditional age demographics, this covers a healthy span of middle age. And while our bodies may be feeling the passage of time, we also have a lot of accumulated wisdom, insight, and experience. I’d like to think that we have a lot of gas left in our tanks. In fact, in many realms we may be at or near the top of our games in terms of productivity and leadership capabilities. These qualities give us opportunities to make significant contributions to the world around us during the years to come.

In some cases, a middle-aged career shift may be part of a fundamental personal transition. Career counselors and coaches have sometimes referred to this as pursuing an “encore” career, one that may involve earning less or even no money — the latter crossing into the realm of avocation — but in any event enabling someone to make a difference in a chosen arena. A popular website devoted to the pursuit of encore careers uses the tag “Second acts for the greater good.” It’s an appealing idea: Earn enough money to secure your future, then spend a chunk of the rest of your time giving back.

Imagine, millions of seasoned, able, mature workers pursuing work and activities that help our communities, big and small. It’s about defining personal legacies, giving back, and paying it forward, right? As I wrote in 2016:

…(W)e live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

Reality checks

But hold on, there are harsh reality checks on my generational cheerleading. Let’s start with economics and personal finances. As I wrote last year, many members of Gen Jones are getting hammered in terms of jobs, savings, and retirement readiness:

…Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog…, America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

Gen Jonesers are in the bull’s-eye of that retirement funding crisis, as will become evident during the next decade. In terms of its entrance into the labor market, this age group is the first to fully experience the widening wealth gap that began in the 1980s and continues to this day. Absent dramatic changes in the American economic structure — likely through some combination of civic leadership, public policy, and political voice — we are a preview of things to come.

Overall, the march of time brings a mix of ordinary and extraordinary life challenges. Job losses and career setbacks have emotional as well as financial impacts. Illnesses and deaths are a part of life, but no less difficult because of their inevitability. As many regular readers of this blog know, various forms of abuse can exact a significant toll and have cumulative effects.

Looking ahead

So what is it to be? A rich midlife with impact-making encore contributions, or remaining years spent pinching pennies and recovering from setbacks? Of course, the reality for most Gen Jonesers will be somewhere in between, replete with individual stories and circumstances. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for midlife and beyond.

With all that said, here is a cluster of framing ideas for our consideration, some possible ways for us to leave it all out on the field:

Legacy work — It starts with legacy work. Again from 2016:

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

…(O)ne’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Community — In recent years, loneliness has been labeled an epidemic and a public health crisis by health experts. (See recent pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times for more.) Part of the answer is to build and maintain genuine communities. These communities can be grounded in geography (e.g., neighborhood), shared interests and activities (e.g., vocations, avocations, hobbies), or shared values (e.g., social and faith beliefs). The care and feeding of communities and those within them require intention and commitment.

Recovery — By the time midlife hits, a lot of folks find themselves recovering from setbacks small and large. The big hits often involve fear, stress, and even trauma. Fortunately, for many there are paths to recovery. For example, even those experiencing post-traumatic stress, once thought to be extremely hard to treat, may heal via new healing modalities and even enter a phase known as post-traumatic growth.

Scarcity, generosity, and choices — Some very smart people are telling us that we face a long-term era of scarcity. Accordingly, our challenge may be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives during a time when resources (personal and global) are limited. As I see it, it will require letting go of some the values that led us to this place and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. It will mean giving back and paying it forward, while defining abundance differently from the ways we have done so before.

Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Related posts

Obviously there’s a lot to contemplate here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. For those who would like to explore some of these themes a bit deeper, I’ve collected a bunch of past entries relating to midlife, transitions, vocations, avocations, and community building:

Work, savings, and retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (2017)

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in-between (2016)

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives (2016)

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (2015)

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Does life begin at 46? (2010).

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter? (2009)

Year’s end contemplations

Holiday lights on the Boston Common

Dear readers, I thought I’d offer this late December posting with several reflections and looks ahead. Wherever this holiday season finds you in location or spirits, I wish for you a good and healthy 2018. And thank you for your readership of this little blog.

Commitment

As the year comes to a close, I am more convinced than ever that preventing, stopping, and responding to all forms of interpersonal abuse is one of the most important objectives we can pursue, individually and as a society. My original base of understanding this assertion has been the world of work, where bullying and mobbing behaviors wreak havoc on psyches, livelihoods, and careers.

This worldview has been enhanced by my association with groups such as Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies and the therapeutic jurisprudence network — the latter soon to publicly debut the new International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. Through these groups, scholars, practitioners, activists, and artists are striving to build a world that positively embraces human dignity as a primary good. My friends and colleagues from these communities, as well as others I’ve met along life’s course, have helped me to understand how abuse occurs in so many other settings, including within families, relationships, and institutions of all kinds.

We’ve got our work cut out for us, but is there a better societal goal than the advancement of human dignity?

Writings

Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (ABC-CLIO, 2018) –Publication of our two-volume book set has been slightly pushed back until late January. Featuring over two dozen contributors (including a Foreword by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and clocking in at some 600 pages, the project deliberately takes a U.S. focus in order to consider the unique aspects of American employment relations. We’ve done our best to deliver a resource useful for scholars and practitioners alike, and we can’t wait to see the published version!

David C. Yamada, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset (2017) — In the fall of 2016, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, to participate in homecoming activities and to spend a few extra weeks on campus as a visiting scholar, working on the book project above. The extended visit marked the 35th year since my college graduation, and it prompted a flood of collegiate memories and reflections on how events of that time — personal, national, and global — remain relevant today. I gathered some of them in an essay just published in The Cresset, the university’s “review of literature, the arts, and current affairs.”

Coming soon…

The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (ISTJ) is a new, non-profit, membership-based learned association devoted to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, an interdisciplinary school of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. Our opening event was a founding meeting in July 2017 at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, held in Prague, Czech Republic. Several dozen people from around the world filled a meeting room to discuss plans for this new organization, and the combined energies created a palpable sense of enthusiasm and engagement.

Since then we have been filing our articles of incorporation and application for tax-exempt charitable status, as well as assembling our website with the ability to accept membership dues and featuring a forum page in which members can post information and commentary. As the initial board chairperson of the ISTJ, I am excited about the possibilities to come for this organization and its founding members.

On building midlife resilience

For many people who have found this blog because of very bad work experiences or career setbacks, the topic of resilience often enters into discussions of recovery and healing. Of course, there’s no shortage of books and long articles about building resilience, and they are certainly worth checking out. But sometimes less is more. Toward that end, I strongly recommend an excellent short piece that appeared over the summer, “How to Build Resilience in Midlife,” by New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope.

Drawing upon the work of resilience experts, she compactly pulls together seven main points of advice:

  • “Practice Optimism”
  • “Rewrite Your Story”
  • “Don’t Personalize It”
  • “Remember Your Comebacks”
  • “Support Others”
  • “Take Stress Breaks”
  • “Go Out of Your Comfort Zone”

If this topic is important to you, then I strongly recommend reading the full article. If you give it 10 minutes of your time, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to save it or print it out. It invites deeper contemplation. Especially for those of us who have been around the block a few times, it’s a great starting place for understanding the keys to building resilience later in life.

For more

For those who would like to dive deeper into this topic, these sources may be helpful:

Also, do a search on “building resilience after trauma.” You’ll find a wealth of informational resources.

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