Lives Well Lived

Lives Well Lived

What do people regret from their deathbeds? A palliative care nurse reports that her dying patients felt that they'd sold their dreams too cheap and wished they hadn't given in so thoroughly to the expectations of others. Breadwinners on treadmills regretted missing so much of their children's and partners' lives, only to be able to buy more things none of them really needed. Stoics and shallow peacemakers were sorry they'd lacked the courage to express their feelings. Many regretted not keeping in better touch with old friends. Others concluded that a fear of change had left them mired in old miserable habits when they could have chosen happiness for themselves.

I took this all as a rather sweet cautionary tale about drawing from the deepest wells within ourselves and not spending our lives caught up in frantic but not very meaningful scurrying: Mary vs. Martha. The comments on Assistant Village Idiot's site made me realize that others might see a much more unattractive "lotus-eaters" kind of message. Our friend Retriever, for instance, read the nurse's account as a kind of "watered down Joseph Campbell follow your bliss" screed, and doubted whether most people ever really regretted "doing the right thing, or meeting their responsibilities." Not being much of a "follow your bliss" type myself, I went back to read the original post to see if it still struck me the same way.

It did. I still see it the way AVI does. He quotes Screwtape on the human souls he was teaching his nephew to tempt: that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here [Hell], "I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."
The difference must lie in my assumption that the work the dying patients regretted was neither their true duty nor their heart's desire but a lot of vain fuss. It's one thing to do hard, unpleasant work that really needs to be done, either for its own sake or to provide for your loved ones. It's another to get caught up in a rat-race that separates you from everything that should be most important. This is something that C.S. Lewis wrote about a lot: the idea that neither hedonism nor self-negation for its own sake was the ideal. Screwtape's advice continues:
As a preliminary to detaching him from the Enemy [God], you wanted to detach him from himself, . . . . Of course I know that the Enemy also wants to detach men from themselves, but in a different way. Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves, He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. Hence, while He is delighted to see them sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting away from their own nature for any other reason. And we should always encourage them to do so. The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained; even in things indifferent it is always desirable substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human's own real likings and dislikings. I myself would carry this very far. I would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if it is something quite trivial such as a fondness for county cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust. The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the "best" people, the "right" food, the "important" books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

So there are different ways of looking at giving in to the expectations of others. A lot depends on what they expect.

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