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