I. DODGING REGRET
In the few years I worked as a police officer, I went on dozens of calls to nursing homes, hospices and houses with round-the-clock home health aides where people were in their last moments, hours, days…
Never once did I hear any of them complain that they had never bungee jumped.
Or anything like it:
“I had a great marriage, wonderful kids, grandkids, a rewarding career, but…if only I’d swam the Hellespont, my life would be complete!”
And yet, there are those who insist that should you suddenly be wheeled into an ER, bursting from within, that your thoughts will drift to all the extravagant things you didn’t do.
So, they say: Do as much as you can! Treat each day as an opportunity to climb mountains before it’s too late.
I assure you: It will be far better to cope with the reality that you never sky-dived than to find yourself a half-mile in the air with a malfunctioning ‘chute and realize: You know, I’ve always been luke-warm on this skydiving-stuff.
The bucket list mentality, as an approach to life, is the construct of people who place the pursuit and fulfillment of ambition as the ultimate existential experience. Excluding the spontaneity of the terminally ill, such lists are wacky evasions of the real stuff that, get this, I like to call “life.”
And you know what? You can’t avoid it!
Even if you climb Everest, swim with Great Whites, make love in JFK and Marilyn’s Carmel getaway, and win the Iditarod, you will as Zorba the Greek, the consummate liver of life (though, not a bungee-jumper), said on his deathbed:
“I have done heaps and heaps of things in my life and still not enough!”
And that’s the way it’s suppose to be.
In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” his lone traveler looks back on the fork-in-the-road of his life and, alas, though each be “just as good” he went that-a-way, and you are to think he made the right choice:
“Somewhere ages, ages hence I shall say this with a sigh
‘I took the road less traveled. And that has made all the difference.”
Ah! See! Life! Go for it!
Not so fast…
Why “sigh?” When do we sigh? Before we say our cloying and cliched and not totally honest remarks; when we want to let ourselves off.
Of course, the traveler has regrets. How could you not? What he and all of us want is to be “two travelers,” but we can’t and so, we are limited to how many roads we travel. Jumping out of an airplane makes perfect sense if, and only IF, you have a spare life.
We don’t. And that’s part of our inevitable regret.
This regret, I’d say, though, tempers our judgement in our dotage, makes us wise and prevents us from being assholes with t-shirts that say: “The one who dies with the most toys wins!”
And according to Kubler-Ross, the only real way to mitigate regret is the old-fashioned one: living a long time.
First off, most of the stuff that “makes people feel alive” just happens to be extremely dangerous.
Secondly, you are really borrowing from someone else’s life: I wasn’t a Navy Seal, but I’ll jump with a parachute into the middle of the ocean!
What may be going on is that you are having an identity crisis. Big words, I know, but it’s a helluva thing to lose your life over.
Here: You missed your window of opportunity. That ship has sailed. You went to work in advertising and wrote commercial spots for Chewy Granola Bars. That’s good. You achieved in a competitive field. You’re fit and not bad at softball. Now let it go.
You are not a Special Forces Operative and no amount of weekend training will provide you with that opportunity. Even if you die, it will read: “JOE DAVIS, 35, AD MAN, wrote spots for Chewy Granola Bars.” Not: “JOE DAVIS, Almost NAVY SEAL.”
And let me tell you, some of these to-do’s are pretty silly. Ride your motorcycle on the Great Wall of China? What the Hell would that even entail? And what if you can’t? What if you get like a huge ticket, dude, and you leave it to begrudging next-of-kin? That wouldn’t be cool.
Lastly: Stop living like you’re padding your resume or filling the photo album in your head with snapshots that will really win over the next group of folks you’d love to impress. I know your guidance counselor in high school stressed that you make your essays “stand out.” Yes, it got you into NYU. Now stop doing that.
Focus on building a good bond with those you know and continue that with new friends.
You’d think with everyone and their brother fucking their fists, feet and neighbors instead of their wives or husbands, that we’d have picked up the clue that real relationships are the most challenging life experience to face.
But what do I know?
What to do? Here’s one thing I do: I lie.
Have you been to the Great Pyramids? Why, yes.
See? That was easy. And would you imagine, that moment of wishing I had the edge just floated away? No plane fare. No dysentery.
And let’s say that holding your seat on the floor of the stock market has got you down and you wanna Hemingway-it as a bullfighter?
First: try doing your own laundry. I promise that you will feel more alive bleaching your own skivvies than getting light-headed in the high-altitude of Mexico City. Same is true about most dreary chores or household tasks: There’s no doubt you’re alive.
It’s also possible that you’ll need to make a career change. Maybe pushing a mower for the local landscaper will reorient your thinking. Sure, you will no longer be considered “a great catch” and you won’t be able to dine out every night, but it will keep you on terra firma where you belong.
More: Stop giving a shit what the imaginary Joneses will say and heed the advice of Satchel Paige: “don’t carry on in the social ramble, it ain’t restful”…
It can also be fatal. And may not get you to where you should be: you.
And if you insist that your pursuits are of the purest origin, then instead of sating your need for the thrill of heights by tightrope walking, work a week or so with a window-washing crew.
Virtual reality may also help.
Some other possible life experiences not everyone has…
— Forgive someone you have long harbored a grudge against
— Cope with aging, illness and impairments; yours and others
— Accept your children despite them not always making you look good
Lastly, should all these not totally kill the impulse to do something reckless, then try this and with Godspeed…
Grow the fuck up.
Paul Ahern lives in the Boston-area, where he coaches high school wrestling. He was once a police officer and recently finished a novel about that experience, entitled “The Downtime.”