No Regrets by Agnes Sligh Turnbull
There is only one thing about which I shall have no regrets when my life ends.
I have savoured to the full all the small, daily joys.
The bright sunshine on the breakfast table;
the smell of the air at dusk;
the sound of the clock ticking;
the light rains that start gently after midnight;
the hour when the family come home;
Sunday evening tea before the fire!
I have never missed one moment of beauty,
not ever taken it for granted.
Spring, summer, autumn, or winter.
I wish I had failed as little in other ways.
~Agnes Sligh Turnbull
A Reflection by Rev. Jessica Steward
I think I’m in the midst of a midlife crisis.
Or perhaps it’s more of a midlife reckoning?
Or perhaps a re-membering.
Whatever it is, it has been deep and wide and wild.
I am now the age my mother was when she was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed her. I am also the age my aunt was when she died from the same cancer that previously killed her sister. My mother.
I am looking right into the gaping maw of my mortality and examining my life through these widened eyes and taking stock of the legacy I want to leave behind when I die at the age of 96 or so.
And I know I’m not the only one. We’re still in this strange liminal place of a 2-plus year pandemic that has so many of us taking stock of our lives. And for some reason that brings me comfort. To know that others are in the midst of their own reckoning.
Their own reconciliation.
Their own reclamation.
Their own remembering.
Late last year, my oldest sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had been waiting for this diagnosis—anticipating it, expecting it. She was ready for it—ever since our mother died nearly 30 years before. She had genetic testing. She then had it again when the technology was more advanced because the first negative didn’t count in her mind. She participated in clinical trials to try and prevent getting it. And yet in December 2021, in spite of not having the BRCA gene and in spite of her multi-year clinical trials, they found a small mass in her right breast and in late February amidst the cold and snow, she had the mass removed along with the breast—and also part of the other one for good measure.
Here’s the thing: when she was scheduling her surgery, she wasn’t thinking about her health. Not really. She wasn’t thinking about her future and how to change it for the better. She was thinking about how to tell her siblings and cousins about her diagnosis to make sure they knew this wasn’t the same cancer that killed our mothers. She was thinking about work and how to make sure they could function without her while she was out on medical leave.
It’s complicated. I know. How our minds create distractions, shift focus, change priorities in order to try and cope with the magnitude of our mortality.
But shortly after her surgery—after she got back to work and discovered no one had moved any of her projects forward while she was on medical leave—my nephew found my sister crying in frustration after a particularly disheartening work call. She ranted and lamented about how little they valued her after 30 years in spite of her myriad and numerous and significant contributions and so he looked at her and said,
“Mom, why don’t you just quit then?”
And she looked at him.
And he looked at her.
And she looked at him.
And something shifted. Finally. Finally. Finally. She realized he was right. That she had this choice now. That she had to create this choice for herself now. And so she did. After 30 years. She decided to retire.
After living in fear that whole time that she would get cancer. After 10 years of trying to keep her two children alive who were grappling with serious mental health issues and opioid addictions. Treatment program after treatment program, intervention after intervention. After giving and giving and giving of herself to her work and her family and her friends.
She finally decided to intervene in her own life. She finally took stock of a life dedicated to career and kids and decided to retire because she realized that the stress of both these things were ultimately killing her.
It’s almost cliche. I know. But it’s real. And it’s true. The crisis before the calm.
My older brother also seems to be going through his own internal examination, albeit one much less harrowing. He was just here visiting from Hawaii with his daughter who is looking at colleges in the area.
One morning during his visit, we found a quiet moment over our respective coffees and eventually our conversation turned to our aging father, who he had just spent a couple of weeks with prior to coming here. We discussed Dad’s health, how he is doing, and the inevitable shift that will have to happen when he and our stepmother require more care.
It turned out that we both had been thinking about it a lot, about how we can best support him as he gets older. How we can spend more time with him in these twilight years. How we might need to change our lives so that we don’t miss out on whatever time remains—both for our father and for ourselves.
My brother is an academic at a university. He shared that the chase has kind of lost its luster after all this time: it used to be about writing the proposal to secure the funding, getting the funding, conducting the research, publishing the findings. But after you’ve done it a few dozen times over 30 years, it doesn’t have the same kick that it once did.
A few years ago, he took a trip to Ireland with his family, his first time there, and he inevitably fell in love with the craggy and green countryside. After he got home, he spent his free time scouring the real estate listings for properties in Ireland, dreaming about living a life on land written, at least in part, in our DNA.
But then after that initial shine wore off, he found himself wondering, “What would I even do there? How would I fill my days?”
Because here he is, already living on this island paradise and yet all he does is move from box to box on autopilot. Shuttling his kids in his car—a box—between school and home and home and sporting fields. Box box box. Driving himself and his wife from home to work to home again. Box box box. He loves to surf and here he is, already living in a surfer’s paradise, but he can’t even remember the last time he escaped his boxes to grab his board and take to the waves.
That’s what happens for so many of us. We get boxed into our lives and we forget our dreams. Or even to dream. To project ourselves to the end of our story and reflect back on what we want to write as our legacy. Instead, we are so busy living a life of expectation and obligation that we forget not only the importance of dreaming in order to fuel a sense of hopeful anticipation for ourselves but that our dreams are alive and need some kind of fertilization, warmth, and love in order to grow.
About 10 years ago, an article about nurse Bronnie Ware’s book “The Top 5 Regrets of Dying” was making the rounds on social media and it really resonated with me. I was in the midst of a little pre-mid-life crisis having recently left my former business career and embarked on a new one as an entrepreneur and coach. As a palliative care nurse, the author spent a lot of time counseling patients during the last 12 weeks of their lives and she documented their top 5 regrets as they lay dying. Of course no one regretted not working hard enough, in fact most men regretted the opposite.
And I’m not sure anyone would really be surprised by the top 5 regrets which include having the courage to express our feelings, letting ourselves be happier, staying in touch with friends, and the aforementioned “not working so hard.” But the most common regret among all of her patients was this:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
As people enter their final days, they look back on their life and realize how many of their dreams are left unfulfilled because as the author shared, “Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
I have to say 10 years after having first read that article—12 years after having run away from my “normal job” to join the entrepreneurial circus—I still feel like I’m trying to live a life true to myself, although I also feel like I’m getting so much closer. I’ve gotten really good at knowing what I don’t want but naming and claiming what I DO want still feels somewhat elusive. Over the years, I’ve tried things on and taken them off. Some of them fit. Some of them don’t. I even went back and worked a corporate job for 4 more years to see if I missed it. I did not.
Regardless, what I have realized of late is that I have trouble naming and claiming my dreams because I’ve spent my whole life living up to someone else’s expectations, obligations, and dreams that I’ve been scared to name and claim my own. Because I have been afraid I’ll be wrong and the consequences will be too great and I’ll regret it.
Ironic, isn’t it?
In the process of trying to live a life with a minimum of regret, I have been afraid to actually go for what I really want and dream about because I’m afraid I’ll regret it.
And so I hold back just a little.
I temper my dreams just a bit.
I am bold but only up until a point.
I cave or acquiesce because I don’t give myself the chance to succeed.
All because I fear I’ll be wrong and will make a mistake and ultimately let my husband and family down.
What a lot of pressure to put on a dream.
So instead, I have become a broody hen, sitting too long on the seemingly fragile egg of my once-fertile dreams, keeping it tucked too long undercover until it becomes nonviable.
In all the swirling of ordinary life, with all our boxes of to-ing and fro-ing, must-ing and should-ing, with all the fear and anguish of being not enough or too much, I forgot that dreams are alive and need nourishment and warmth. Dreams need to be shared in their entirety, their enormity, their these-are-possibly-ridiculous-but-I-don’t-care-ness—so they can receive the spark of love that will help them come to life in whatever form or shape they are meant to take.
And as we write the chapters of our life story, of course we’ll have regrets along the way. Of course they will accumulate over time. It’s the very nature of life and of having so many damn choices. Regret is inevitable. But it’s not the end.
In her book “On Living,” author and hospice chaplain Kerry Egan says “Thinking through those regrets, though, gives any one of us a chance to think about what we wish had been different. It’s a chance to think about what we feel is missing in our lives, what we hope could be different. Most important, even if just in a small way, it’s a chance to act on that understanding. Hope is the belief that better things are possible. Regret shows us what those better things we hope for are. Regret hones hope, sharpens and clarifies the desire at the heart of it. If you’re alive…you can still work on making those hopes come true.”
So I don’t know how long this petite mid-life crisis of mine will last or when it will end. But I do know now that it begins with naming and claiming my dreams, which has already started with the mission of this organization, this community. But there is so much more I want to do and so many more people we want to reach.
Some of my dreams are audacious. Perhaps even ridiculous.
Some of them won’t ever “hatch” or take flight. Some of them, hopefully many of them, will.
Some of them will change because that’s what living things do.
Some of them will impact others and will require hard decisions.
But I’m tired of hiding these dreams until they grow cold with neglect. I’m tired of being afraid of making a mistake or of having the wrong dream.
Because in the end, it’s not the exact shape a dream takes that matters.
It’s that I dreamed.
That I let myself imagine I could make some small difference in the world for myself and for others.
That I could make a mistake, get the feedback, refine the dream, and keep moving forward with all the same hunger and hope in my heart.
Onward and upward.
Over and over.
Until I die.
At age 96 or so.
This reflection was delivered live as part of the “Sermon on the Couch” service offered as part of our free kindness community—The House of Belonging—on July 24, 2022.