Crying Over Spilled Milk

Is the only way to die with few regrets

They say there’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I couldn’t disagree more.

The use in crying lies in what’s left in the glass and in figuring out how you spilled it in the first place.

Careless, inattentive and unaware, we spill our years under the delusion that we’re eternal. In fact, we often kill time by waking up late to shorten the hours not knowing what we’d otherwise do with ourselves with so much time on our hands. “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” said Henry David Thoreau.

Just wait a little, wait a while’… we tell our hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long, long road, and time waits for no man.

And then one day, you wake up and realize there is more spilled milk than what’s left in the glass and the spilling won’t stop.

You panic, cry, regret… What’s the use?

The use is in making sure that whatever milk is left, trickles, instead of spilling. And the trick to the trickle is to live attentive and aware from that moment on.

When Australian caregiver Bronnie Ware wrote a blog in 2009 listing the five things that most haunted her terminally ill patients, she had no idea it would become an internet sensation. The blog took on a life of its own. By 2012, more than eight million people had read her post.

No one, it seems, wants to die with these 5 regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

At 54, I realized how much milk I had spilled, and then and there, decided not to allow one more drop to fall without my awareness. And the only way I felt I could do this was by setting fire to the life I’d been leading up to that point and journey into the unknown on the knife-edge of uncertainty.

That was four years ago… 48 months that have felt like an eternity and I don’t regret one second.

One by one, I’ve examined these 5 venomous regrets and worked-out the antidotes.

Authenticity

Death, says philosopher Alain de Botton, is a terrifying agent of authenticity.

When you take stock of the milk you’ve spilled and how little remains, you realize there is no time left for pretense. No time to show up on stage wearing an ill-fitting costume and mask. Not a second more to waste on pleasing others by denying yourself. The only time you have is for growing into your own plumage, brightly, and end the weary, and ultimately fruitless charade of trying to be someone you are not. As written in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly.”

Seeing how our modern world is hellbent on making us blend-in like sheep, it is one hardest battles you will ever have to fight. But if you don’t wage it, you will be voicing this regret once your last drop of milk is about to spill. Authenticity, I’ve also discovered, is one of love’s most powerful aphrodisiacs.

Overworked

I don’t think it’s a matter of too much work but the type of work on which we devote our time.

What many call “burnout,” “stress,” or “depression,” author Sam Keen examines under a more useful light.

Burnout, Keen warns, “is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.

Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it’s a symptom that you are living someone else’s life (Regret #1).

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.”

Purposeful work, that which matches your talents and passions to a particular need in the world, is one you will never tire of.

A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation. — Playwright William Herzog

But what if you’re still uncertain what you’re passions are and are stuck in a job you hate, like 70% of Americans?

Consider it then as a means to an end; one that can subsidize a period of exploration until you feel a spark. “Seek and you shall find,” said Jesus.

Expressing feelings

I assume that what Bronnie’s patients meant by this regret is what Mary Evans referred to at the end of this poem:

If there be sorrow

let it be

for things undone

undreamed

unrealized

unattained

to these add one:

Love withheld

… restrained.

Also what writer Anaïs Nin wrote in one of her journals:

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of wounds, weariness, of witherings and tarnishings.”

And, finally, what Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Beyond love for others, we also betray ourselves by not having the courage to express and actualize our deepest longings. We repress them out of fear of what others may think… the fear of having our dreams judged unrealistic, impractical, fanciful — even childish.

As we age, life has a cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky and no longer dare the impossible.

Genius, said French poet Baudelaire, is childhood recovered at will, and I have since killed the old cynic in me.

Dying without this 3rd regret, then, requires us to love with abandon, selflessness, attention, and supreme care, and to give voice and wings to our dreams.

Not staying in touch with friends

Today, more than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship.

The key lies in the last word of the previous sentence: “companionship,” which, at root, means breaking bread together, and springs from the same source as the word “compassion,” or suffering together.

When I finally broke free, I realized how encumbered I had been with frivolous acquaintances, most of whom had only showed up in my life when times were good. The few that did appear when feeling blue, did so with the intent to feel better about themselves and their own fortune.

Approaching my 60th birthday, I’ve since discarded those unworthy of the name “friend” like one would discard a pair of tight-fitting shoes or the unwholesome leaves of an artichoke. I am down to one, but oh! what a companion he is; showing up —both— on sunny and stormy days, patiently watching me spill my guts without once casting judgment as we break bread together.

You know you are in the presence of an empathic man when you feel you have been given permission to be yourself. — Robert Bly

Like Sancho Panza to Quixote, he rides by my side — in victory and defeat — loyally serving me as the voice of conscience when I stray, and not once allowing me to wallow in self-pity or complacency. He is the thorn on my side, not my echo.

“Do not seek friends,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, “seek comrades in arms!” And you will find them once you understand the meaning of friendship, dare to be true to yourself, and work on something which nurtures your passions.

I wish I had let myself be happier

Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy; happy in the being and the knowing, that is beyond happiness, that is bliss! And if you have any sense, you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it. — Henry Miller

Happiness is not a pursuit, as the nation’s founding fathers have led you to believe. It’s an orientation, steeped in awareness, as Henry Miller discovered. It’s mindful attention to what exactly gives us joy, pleasure, and delight. It’s counterbalancing our unpleasant moments with a heavy dose of gratitude and by recalling positive experiences in the most vivid language we can.

Since the moment of my reinvention, I have sustained an almost daily practice of writing down 3 things for which I am grateful, along with a recent positive experience. A year ago, I tallied and categorized the 118 positive moments I had recorded up till then. This I did to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion, strong and memorable enough, to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, but not surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), or simply making someone happy, or involving ‘meraki,’ a word modern Greeks use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, and love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones. These kind, loving gestures, however small and seemingly insignificant, will prevent me from being forgotten, something that to ancient Egyptians was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A second third had been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future — with all its hopes, wants, and wishes — was annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ‘ataraxia,’ a lucid state of equanimity characterized by freedom from distress and worry, which, in my case, usually occur out in nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which time seems suspended while doing something immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, like William Herzog.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline when tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion was when I rewarded myself, say, with a double latte as a prize for a small victory.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

I wish I would’ve savored every moment

This regret is not on Bronnie’s list but I’m sure that, if prodded, her dying patients would have nodded in agreement.

As I recently wrote, when first becoming conscious of the little milk I had left and the much spilled without awareness, I was gripped by unspeakable terror, especially when realizing that many of my past experiences would never repeat themselves. As writer Maria Popova says, “one of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts.”

I now live with the urgency of the terminally-ill, hurried by what Germans term Torschlusspanik— literally, “gate-closing panic”- the feeling that opportunities are shutting down. But rather than panic, I now think of it this way: Every time I’m about to experience something, whether a solitary walk, a kiss, caress, or moonrise, I assume it won’t happen again and savor each blissful drop. Every act, then, acquires a heightened intensity and deeper meaning, leaving behind an indelible soulprint.

No doubt, I will die with some regrets, but I’m on a spirited quest to do so with the least amount possible.

What about you?

Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver


Related Reflections:

I’m Aging Really Well

Dad Died Last Night

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

 

 

I’m Aging Really Well!

In ways you can’t imagine.

“At 60, one starts to get young,” said Pablo Picasso, “but by then it’s too late.”

I’m beginning to fathom what this French rascal meant.

Because it now takes me a good part of the morning just to rev up: to discharge all the night’s clogged phlegm, scrape off the rheumy crust from my sleepy eyes, straighten my spine, my thinning hair and unruly eyebrows, ensure all my frostbitten toes are still there, and patiently stand over the toilet bowl watching my piss trickle slower than it takes coffee to percolate. By that time, I’m already tired, a good part of the morning is shot, and I’m close to calling it a day. My biggest fear, I’ll say, is that my decaying body won’t keep pace with my youthful spirit that keeps stamping the ground like a hotblooded bull.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho said age only slows the rhythm of the man who never dares walk on his own two feet. In other words: the man who doesn’t live true to himself and so leads an inauthentic life. Still, while I have proven this to be true, my two feet are getting weary and are having trouble keeping up with the frenzied pace I have purposely given my life for almost eight years now.

Back then, at the start of this new chapter in my life, I took one look at the span between the end of my childhood and my present and realized that most of those thirty odd years had elapsed under the implacable weight of tedium; that hulking monster who Spanish writer Luis Landero says approaches by drumbeat in a slow parade with his ashen face and lugubrious retinue of phantoms to officially shut down a life with the death lock of monotony. In a panic, I also recognized that my hourglass was more than half empty which lent the urgency of the terminally ill to whatever time I figured I had left.

It doesn’t take much to remind me what a mayfly I am… what a soap bubble floating over a children’s party. — ‘Memento Mori’ by Billy Collins

Few people live this way. They squander their time as if death were nothing but an unfounded rumor. There you are, in your prime… late twenties, early thirties perhaps, looking ahead at half a century of wonderful experiences until a ghoul shatters your fantasy; a pandemic, say, which does not discriminate between young and old. If you are wise and humble, you are seized with a sudden terror when realizing your half century is nowhere near guaranteed.

My own anxiety flared hotter while sifting my memories and recognizing there were experiences which would never again repeat themselves.

One of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts. — Maria Popova

I recalled the last time I had been spellbound by the shocking iridescence of a Blue Morpho butterfly weaving through the white-blossomed coffee trees in my native country when I was about ten years old. The last daring dive I took from a cliff into the bracing waters of the most magical lake in the world. The time my daughters last took turns on my back and rode me like a prancing pony across the living room carpet. Unrepeatable moments… the sharpest daggers of loss.

Then and there, at age 54, I vowed to fall in love again — with life — and relish every single moment and experience as if they were my last. To do that, I needed to recover my childhood’s sense of wonder, awe, and delight.

First, I knew I had to disrupt the linear relationship between expense and value, seeing I had spent fortunes in the past on stuff without deriving much meaning or delight. In this realm, children have it licked, having two advantages as says philosopher Alain de Botton: “They don’t know what they are supposed to like, and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value for them. Now, the little money I have, I invest on experiences, not things.”

Next, I needed to see the world with fresh eyes, like children and artists do, for whom everything is relevant and little goes unseen. And for that, I had to train myself to forget the names I once used to label things.

An ‘ordinary’ old tree, then, would cease to be nothing but a ‘tree,’ but also a woodland elder, whose rugged bark, under my caress, could feel like the sagging skin on my father’s back. The moon would cease to be nothing but a dead rock floating in space, but also the poetic beacon for starstruck lovers or the lighthouse of melancholy. Wind not just wind, but the lofty carrier of sighs and seeds. Everything had to become unfamiliar and extraordinarily uncommon.

The whole conception of the normal, the average, the commonplace, is due to a significant mental disease, said English author John Cowper Powys, adding that the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language is the word “commonplace”.

Along with fresh eyes, I also had to train my apathetic soul to feel anew.

“It’s useless to try to feel new things without feeling them in a new way,” said Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. “For things are what we feel they are, and the only way for there to be new things… for us to feel new things, is for there to be some novelty in how we feel them.”

I decided to move “out of my mind” to get lost in sensation. I willfully awoke my numbed senses to the world and began to savor the fresh rain inside blueberries, to imagine a sugarcane field in every spoonful, to hear a beehum in a drop of honey and taste in an apple the summer and snows, the wild welter of Earth and the insistence of sun, as poet D.H. Lawrence said was necessary to live in blissful awareness. Lovemaking became a metaphor; an erotic ritual; a ceremony; raw animal sex transfigured by my imagination. I became voracious, lustful, uninhibited, incandescent, and wild!

Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting or having sex. — Kapka Kassabova

It was as if I had awoken a caged beast inside me who clamored for release, so I decided to record his stentorian tumult and logorrheic yearnings in my Memoir:

“I want to carry thunderbolts in my hands. My blood to burn. Dance barefoot in mud while drinking rain. Pluck a slippery fish from an icy stream with bare hands and tear its flesh with my teeth. I want to swim in the ocean and not bathe for months. Push massive boulders down steep, rugged mountains. Prance and lock horns with goats in the Alps. Punch a white shark on its snout and watch it sink, cross-eyed into the abyss. I want to shoot a spear through the black heart of a crow. Women to cower when I look at them with rapacious eyes with the radiance and intensity of stars. I want orgasms like Supernovas! I want to crush pungent leaves and rub them all over my body; I don’t want to smell like soap but loam. I want to throw my shoes into a lake and never retrieve them. I want my flesh to be lacerated by branches, dirt and grime under my nails, fungus eating away at my toenails, heels like sandpaper, and yank snakes from my nostrils. I want to slap the young to wake them from their stupor and then inflame them. I want to kiss a woman wearing a plate inside her lips, have her devour my heart, spit the sinew, and swallow the bloody pulp. I want to communicate by drumbeats, walk naked into a forest fire, blow smoke onto women’s smug faces who refuse to feed their men raw meat. I want to sew bloody fangs onto every child’s cuddly teddy bear. Tumble with a girl who wears a necklace made of men’s skulls. I no longer want to tiptoe my way through life but stomp! Not whisper but bellow. I want my tumult to be heard!

But now that I’m approaching 60, my spirit and my body are out of sync and I’m afraid my moldering carcass will give out before I have sucked all the marrow out of life. There’s so much I still want to do and time’s running out. And yet, I refuse to go quietly into the night.

While I know full well there is nothing I can do against the universal law of entropy (from dust to dust), I still put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared, just like Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said in ‘Saviors of God’:

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless.

I stay unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, I smash it!

And to all my ills and troubles, I respond with laughter and the sense that I, and the world, are mad.

Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t strive to live rapt in wonder, awe, and delight. To see the world anew like a child. To savor every moment as if it were my last.

Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will. — Charles Baudelaire

At age 80, writer Henry Miller said he was a far more cheerful person than he was at twenty or thirty. “What is called youth is not youth,” he scoffed, “but something like premature old age. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then, I was ready for it. I had lost many illusions, but not my enthusiasm, nor my unquenchable curiosity. With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder.”

When Picasso said we start to get young at the age of sixty but too late, he added that “only then does one start to feel free; only then has one learned to strip oneself down to one’s essential creative simplicity.”

We are doomed to decay, says Maria Popova, so we cope by creating.

Therefore, as long as I can still drag my weary carcass out of bed each morning, I’ll keep spinning my yarns as my tribute for being one of the happiest of men alive on this wondrous world.

However many pages remain in my book, I intend to fill them with tall tales of adventure so that after biting the dust, my grandchildren will one day gather by an open fire, read my tumult, and become inflamed with a burning passion for a spirited and well-lived life.


Related article:

The Purpose of Aging is to Become a Wizard