My adopted home of Asheville, North Carolina continues to make lists for best of this and best of that, which makes some people happy (particularly those in the tourism and real estate industries). There are others among us who would prefer to be a bit further off the grid.
However, one list the town hasn’t made—as far as I know and assuming there is such a list—is as the place with the most cars bearing multiple bumper stickers. There are vehicles on the streets here on which literally the entire rear is covered with all manner of messages in an array of colors. It may well be part of the eclectic, bohemian joie de vivre here in which letting your freak flag fly is both condoned and encouraged. Or maybe it’s just a subtle, and not so subtle, way to make your feelings visible. And, like a good quote, the quick, pithy bumper sticker message may have more clout and perhaps even produces more contemplation.
There’s one I hadn’t run across previously, but seems to abound here: “Don’t Postpone Joy.” I can’t say how many times I’d probably seen it before I actually paused and considered the sentiment. I assume for the twenty-somethings who see life stretched in front of them, perhaps propelled by a “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” attitude, this is a working philosophy. In fact, they probably can’t imagine why you would postpone joy, or maybe they’re too busy living to consider such a possibility may haunt them someday.
But for those of us on the downward slide, that simple three-word phrase may prompt some unsettling questions: Did I postpone joy? If so, why?
For that matter, we may be driven to consider what or who did or could have constituted joy in our lives. Was there something we wanted to do or should have done, but postponed because of other commitments or responsibilities? Or maybe the right opportunity didn’t present itself, or we simply failed to act and create that opportunity.
This is the kind of reflection on the past many people shun, and perhaps with good reason. Maybe you believe the past is the past, that it cannot be changed and that it’s better not to dwell on such matters. But even with that attitude, it’s hard to argue that the past has shaped your life in many ways and, even though technically it’s in the rear-view mirror, it may still have a profound impact on your daily existence.
Faulkner proclaimed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s a sentiment not surprising to anyone with roots in the South, but nevertheless holding truth for all. Or I can always fall back on T.S. Eliot who wrote in the opening of his Four Quartets: “Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past./If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.” And later he added: “Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.”
Putting aside the past, maybe we can consider the wisdom now of no longer postponing joy. It’s something quite consistent with the Buddhist admonition to live in the moment since we cannot know when the end will come—that is the unalterable truth. It’s an approach that focuses you on the small things and makes you appreciate the unexpected, and find your own ways to create joy. Maybe it encourages you to undertake something you’ve always wanted to do or try or experience, but lacked the time or courage or means.
Here’s the cold, hard truth as offered by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse in Australia who spent a number of years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, and listening to their reflections. She collected what she heard into a book with a title that pulls no punches, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Number one of the list is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
“This was the most common regret of all,” Ware explains. “When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
See if that doesn’t slow you down and cause you to reflect on your existence. And then there’s number five on Ware’s list: “I wish I had let myself be happier.” For those of still kicking, consider it a warning to consider your life and the time you have left—a great unknown. And the answer, so simple it fits on a bumper sticker, is, “Don’t Postpone Joy.”
Addendum: Curious about the other four top regrets Ware identifies in her book? Here they are, accompanied by her explanations:
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”