By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Australian writer Bronnie Ware spent years tending to hospice patients. Caring for the dying extends beyond administering palliatives and checking vital signs. Caring for the dying is about keeping vigil, bearing witness to the parting thoughts, words and deeds of people facing their final stop on the continuum of life.
Ware enumerates the lessons, small wisdoms imparted by the terminally ill in her book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” I’ll resist the temptation to detail all five here, focusing instead on the one that has been bouncing around my brain for weeks: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
What does that mean? To me, it’s about living an authentic life. In Polish, this is zycie autentyczne. In French this is une vie authentique. Authentic refers to being genuine, to being real. It’s the opposite of fake. This is no room for an imposter in a life lived deliberately.
When I consider likely ingredients of an authentic life, the following thoughts come to mind: how you spend your time; who you spend your time with; and what risks you are willing to take…to be happy.
Time is finite and fleeting. None of us knows exactly how many grains of sand remain in our personal hourglass. Reading obituaries as I often do, I discover vignettes depicting lives, some lived in length, others in brevity. I’d argue that one should always aim for depth given the uncertainties of length.
Living deeply is living thoughtfully and deliberately. It’s not simply allowing waves of time to gently wash over and sometimes thrash. It’s about seizing the sail, riding the current towards a destination you define. It’s about not yielding to fears and criticisms of those who doubt you. They are simply projecting frustrations at their inability to be true to themselves.
Destination may be a place, an aspiration or a bona fide adventure. Destination may be the journey itself, a way of living.
Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, in his work, “Harlem,” asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” Let’s just say his eloquent response isn’t pretty. The poem is well worth a Google search.
Who you spend your time with significantly impacts quality of life. I get it. We all have to spend some time with people who aren’t particularly affirming. These may be family members, co-workers, roommates and folks I refer to as “pseudo-friends.” Pseudo-friends may appear friendly in a superficial sort of way, but they are more likely to undermine your dreams than encourage them.
I once attended a speech by a female founder of a successful business employing well over one hundred Vermonters. She was a single mother raising her son while working towards a college degree. Once graduated, she set out to build her own company which she did, with plenty of elbow grease and the stuff of determination.
“In life, all you really need are two or three people who really believe in you,” she said.
I believe this, because I have seen it.
Developing keen radar for people worth spending your precious time with takes practice and, sometimes, a few emotional bruises while refining your sense. Being able to detect warning signs is key. Similarly, recognizing and cultivating relationships with positive folks who enrich your life is worth the investment of time.
Risky behavior is generally not a positive. The phrase is often associated with irresponsible use of drugs and alcohol or inappropriate sexual activity.
Risk-taking, of the calculated and carefully-considered type, with goals in mind is something quite different. Sir Edmund Hillary took a risk when he planned his ascent of Mount Everest, accompanied by Tenzing Norgay. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a risk when he ran for president despite lower limb paralysis from polio. Little Ruby Bridges took a very scary risk when she became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South in 1960.
The happiest, most contented people I know include a friend who gave up a lucrative business career to teach, an engineer who entered college late and stayed on to earn a Ph.D., and a very special Roman Catholic priest who, at age 80, told me he realized his childhood ambition and never looked back.
What does living an authentic life mean to you? It’s worth a ponder.