I have an old favourite story and a very new favourite story. Both have to do with something that should be obvious and effortless but never really is.
Many of you will know my old favourite: a man in his fifties goes to the doctor and is told he has five years to live. The man had not imagined his demise to be so close; there was so much he wanted to do. The doctor asks him how he plans to spend the time he has left to him.
“I’m going to go to medical school,” the man answers.
The doctor, more prepared for a response that included family time, travel, looking at sunsets and the like, is surprised.
“But you only have five years to live. You won’t even be around to practise.”
The man explains that no matter what he does, five years will still be five years and he’s always wanted to study medicine. He will spend his time doing what he wants.
My new favourite story is about a Muslim lady living in the US who always wore a black niqab. One day, while shopping at her usual grocery, she notices a small boy staring at her. This is not new to her. People stare, gape and gawp more often than not at the billowing veil that covers her, leaving only her eyes visible.
At the cashier, she finds herself just ahead of the boy and his mother. He never takes his great, wide eyes off her. And then, just as she is about to leave, the little awestruck boy leans close to her and whispers, “I love you, Batman.”
These are the courageous love stories I want to live inside. To be fearlessly loving to myself. Or to say the most important thing even if it’s daunting.
In the version I know, the 50ish med student graduates and outlives the timeframe he was given. Because how else are you going to justify such an anecdote?
Except…except, I don’t think it should matter. If he was going to die, he was going to die. So why should anything stop him from doing something fulfilling?
And really, if you have a chance to tell Batman you love him, you should. Yes, he’s saving the world and you’re not even in pre-school (aren’t we all in some sort of pre-school?), but you should. You may never get the chance again.
The word you’ve noticed I’m not using is “regret.” Because these are stories about the opposite of regret. Because regret is soul-killing. Regret is a kind of day-to-day torture.
Soon it will be a new year and even if you’re not thinking about it today, you’re likely en route to those brand-new New Year’s resolutions. And then, after a month or so of starving, working on your resumé, saving up for a vacation, speaking softly to your children and calling your mother – after a few short weeks, it all slips away.
And what you’re left with is regret. You could have done this thing, but you did not. Did not lose the weight, change jobs, play nicer.
Consider not doing that to yourself this time. Consider not setting impossible or improbable goals. Consider not deliberately sabotaging yourself.
Bronnie Ware, the Australian palliative care nurse who became famous for writing down the regrets of her dying patients, comes, rather surprisingly, to our rescue. A bit extreme, you think. A new year is hardly cause to jump to deathbed advice.
In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Ware sets out exactly what we should be thinking about every day. Not just in those last weeks before we die.
Most people said they regretted working too hard. I think what they really regretted was the time they spent ignoring their families.
People were sorry they didn’t let themselves be who they really were. The middle-aged man who went to medical school, he was being true to a long-buried dream. Do that.
Not staying in touch with friends showed up on the list.
“I wish I’d let myself be happier,” said lots of people with not much time left.
And then this. Every day we regret this and yet it still shows up on a top-five end-of-life list: we don’t say what we feel.
There are so many reasons we stifle our feelings. I think it must damage us a little every time. Time to brave up.
I love you, Batman.
Remember to talk to your doctor or therapist if you want to know more about what you read here. In many cases, there’s no single solution or diagnosis to a mental health concern.
Many people suffer from more than one condition.