A few weeks ago, in my article Don't Let Old Friends Die, I described palliative care practitioner Bronnie Ware's article “Regrets Of The Dying”, which is also now more detailed in the recently published book Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. It's worth a read.
In a nutshell, as Bronnie describes, the five regrets most often uttered by those on their deathbed are as follows:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
So if you were to act upon these regretful reflections, and if you don't want to die with a lot of regrets, you should:
- Live a life that's true to who you are, and not driven by who you think the world wants you to be (in other words, be authentic)
- Don't spend so much time working. Even if your work is or feels noble and laudable, or even if you're so self-actualized it feels like relaxing play, you may still want to step back and ask yourself how often you use work as an “escape”, or to simply immerse yourself in more of the doing that takes you away from being.
- Express your feelings. Are you in love? Tell him or her. Are you angry? Speak up (and definitely do not, as I warn here, bury it). Are you lonely? Tell someone. Do you disagree wholeheartedly? Quit being such a people-pleaser or a coward, be bold, and voice your disagreement. You get the idea. Don't cruise through life, stone-faced and so “resilient” that you cannot, will not, fear, or are not vulnerable enough to express your true feelings and emotions.
- Keep in touch with your friends (and, dare I say, venture out to make new ones too). I tell you how and why in great detail here.
- Choose to be happy no matter your circumstances. Stuck on the runway at an airport? Close your eyes, breathe, smile, and finally listen to that Spotify music playlist you've been too busy to savor. Waiting in line at the grocery store when you're late for an appointment? It's not worth fretting. You don't have control. Use it as a much-needed opportunity to stretch, read a few pages on your smartphone's Kindle, or listen to a few minutes of a podcast. At a boring dinner party? Quit sighing and tell your favorite joke from sixth grade to lighten the mode, or ask everybody which superhero they want to be for the night. You get the idea. Be that person who is peaceful, calm, and radiates joy.
Of course, there are plenty of other “tips” one can find when it comes to dying with no regrets. For example, two of my favorite such resources of late are the article Die With No Regrets: Follow These 43 Life Lessons and the book Don't Waste Your Life, by John Piper.
But recently, as I was reading Philippians 1:21 in the Bible, I came across and had a chance to ponder Apostle Paul's words: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
To die is gain?
In other words, one could think of their death on an even more meaningful level than simply dying with “no regrets”? One could experience death as something just as meaningful as life? One could consider and plan for their death to be an event that may very well indeed rock the planet and change the world?
Let's explore that intriguing concept, shall we?
What Does Dying To Gain Mean?
To understand Paul’s words, I think we must first look at the context of his statement “to die is gain”.
Up to this time, Paul had suffered much in his missionary journeys. He has been beaten, stoned, hated, mocked, shipwrecked, snake-bitten and, at the time of the writing, was imprisoned. But yet he seemed to find a strange joy in each of these afflictions, because each trial strengthened his faith in leaps and bounds, and allowed him to become an even stronger missionary and champion for Christ. In other passages of Scripture, he describes how he considers his body “as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) for God’s kingdom, and also says that because he had faithfully run the race set before him (Hebrews 12:1), he knew God would be honored not only during his life but also at his death (Philippians 1:19–20). He lived a life of great sacrifice and love for others and therefore was assured that even his death would glorify God in a magnificent way.
He would inspire.
He would be remembered.
The seeds of love he had planted across the Mediterranean and beyond would go on to touch the lives of many, and exponentially increase the knowledge of the Hero's Journey of Jesus, far beyond what he would ever have been able to accomplish as one man during one short life.
Paul knew that heaven would be far better than his earthly life, and that in heaven he would be present with God in a place devoid of sin, sickness, and death (2 Corinthians 5:8). But he also knew that before that time came, his purpose on Earth was to live as a beacon light of hope in a world plagued with the darkness of sin and death (Matthew 5:16).
So how can we do this too?
How can we live our own lives so that our death is gain?
3 Ways To Live Your Life So That Your Death Is Gain
I think there are three ways to live your life so that your death is gain. I've discovered great meaning and peace from incorporating each of these into my own life, and wish I had taken each of these steps much earlier in my life. But no matter your age, and no matter how close you suspect you may be to your own death, it is never too late to start.
Here is how you can begin:
1. Possess a purpose statement that loves God and loves others.
Identify your purpose in life and enable yourself to achieve that unique purpose to the very best of your ability while loving God and loving others as fully as possible with that purpose.
See, true and lasting happiness is not achieved by external circumstances, not your thoughts, not your intentions, not even your feelings, but your inner soul. In his book Soul Keeping, author John Ortberg defines the soul as that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates and enlivens everything else. He writes that we all have two worlds: an outer world that is visible and public and obvious, and an inner world that may be chaotic and dark, or may be gloriously beautiful.
In the end, the outer world fades, and all you are left with then is your inner world.
But ironically, the more obsessed we are with ourselves, our fitness, our cognitive performance, our finances, and our food, the more we tend to neglect our souls. When your soul is not centered and right, you tend to define yourself by your accomplishments, your physical appearance, your title, or your social circles and friends. But then, when you lose these, you tend to lose your identity. I’ve experienced this myself when I’ve gotten injured, sick, or had a poor race or workout and subsequently felt like I was losing my happiness and transitioning to a lower level of energy vibration because I was losing my identity as an athlete or a healthy person. Suddenly the emptiness of those shallow pursuits becomes distinctly magnified. Perhaps this is why one of my favorite Bible verses, Mark 8:36 says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
So how do you connect with and care for your soul?
You must ask yourself: what is the core part of you that you want folks to talk about at your funeral?
In other words, what is your life's purpose?
I tell you in great detail in this article how to find your purpose in life. Go read it and follow all the instructions. This is important. Set a time to do it and challenge yourself within a month's time to have your single, succinct purpose statement memorized. Then, as I teach you here, revisit it every evening.
2. Be humble and meek.
As paradoxical as it may seem, for your death to rock this planet and for your greatness to be fondly remembered, you should live your life in a spirit of meek, humble service towards your fellow human. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
Yet meekness and humility in not celebrated in our day and age. Instead, we are surrounded by modern pop culture and entertainment that teaches us that to truly become great and be remembered, we must do the exact opposite. We must become rich and powerful. We must hustle day and night like media mogul Gary Vaynerchuk. We must be aggressive in business and self-promotional in marketing. We must crush others on our rise to the top. We must paint ourselves as living lives of unreachable perfection on our social media channels. We must show no signs of weakness or vulnerability. If we don't amass massive homes, piles of cash, a well-balanced portfolio, and a C-suite executive position in the company, then we are unlikely to be remembered for long after we pass, right? Therefore, we must all strive to be Kings and Queens.
So in our fallen world, humility is often correlated to weakness. But being meek and humble does not mean you must be weak, tame, or lacking in courage. It simply means that you refuse to inflate your own self-estimation or think more highly of yourself than you ought to think. To be meek is to accept your strengths and limitations for what they truly are, instead of constantly trying to portray yourself in the best possible light. By recognizing our true strengths and weaknesses, we can not only find peace by living realistically, but we can also find the humility that allows us to serve others in a meaningful way, with no judgement, no shaming, and no though of our own gain.
Harold Bingham Lee, an American religious leader and educator, summarized meekness excellently when he wrote:
“A meek man is defined as one who is not easily provoked or irritated and forbearing under injury or annoyance. Meekness is not synonymous with weakness. The meek man is the strong, the mighty, the man of complete self-mastery. He is the one who has the courage of his moral convictions, despite . . . pressure. . . . In controversy his judgment is the court of last resort, and his sobered counsel quells the rashness of the mob. He is humble-minded; he does not bluster. . . . He is a natural leader and is the chosen of army and navy, business and church to lead where other men follow. He is the ‘salt’ of the earth and shall inherit it.”
That kind of meek human is who we should strive to be.
After all, Jesus – the greatest King who ever lived – washed his disciples feet. Will you do the same for those in your life? Or will you strive so hard to “be remembered” that you wind up rich and successful, but lonely and possibly even despised?
As you consider the answer to those questions, I would encourage you to go watch Michael Jordan's retirement speech. Michael, was one of the greatest basketball players that ever lived, right? Yet if you watch his speech, you'll see a slightly sad individual still seeming to teem with angst, excessive pride and bitterness.
In the years after Michael's retirement, his rise to greatness in basketball became marred with stories of how how he punched a teammate in the face during a practice, how he belittled less-talented peers, how he was fueled by a ruthless anger and bitterness, and how his competitiveness on the golf course, gambling, or in any other competitive venue resulted in many beginning to remember him not for his greatness, but for his divisiveness and rage. This is a perfect example of how pride and superiority, at first, may seem like greatness, but in the end, results in the world instead remembering the fierce arrogance that often accompanies a lack of humility in one's “rise to the top”.
Trust me: in the end, that's probably not who you want to be.
3. Write your own obituary.
Although it sounds a bit macabre, writing your own obituary can be a powerful exercise to help you clearly identify whether you are, as John Piper writes in his book Don't Waste Your Life, wasting your life frittering away in, as Napoleon Hill writes in his book Outwitting The Devil, a hypnotic trance of meaningless and less-than-impactful habits, rituals and routines that neither fully serve your purpose nor fully serve your fellow human.
There are plenty of instructions you can find online about how to go about writing your own obituary, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. You can begin by writing whatever comes to mind, even if it feels like a stream of consciousness. As you begin, don't overthink this exercise or excessively edit, censor, analyze, or critique. Use words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs. Schedule a quiet 30-60 minutes to answer questions such as:
-What and/or who did you impact or change? Why?
-What character traits and values did you consistently demonstrate over your life? At your core, who were you?
-Who did you care for? How did you impact or change those you cared for?
-What did you care about? This also ties deeply into your purpose statement described above.
-What did you show interest in? What were you passionate or enthusiastic about?
-What were the major accomplishments in your life? At the ages of 20, 30 40, 50, 60, 70, and beyond?
What kind of legacy did you leave behind? How were your children, other members of your family, or your connections and relationships impacted by your life?
When you're finished writing your obituary, look over it, and ask yourself questions such as:
-If I died today, would the world be better because of how I had lived?
-Do I feel as though I am fully living my purpose with the direction in which my life is headed?
-Am I creating a legacy, and if so what is the legacy that I’m creating?
-What’s missing from my life that would allow me to love God and love others more fully?
-What do I need to do in order for my obituary to be “complete?”
Then, write a second, fantasy obituary in which you write down all of the things you currently wish you had done with your life when you are reading your current obituary. Pay attention to what changes. Then realize – if you're reading this, then you’re not dead yet! Begin making any changes that you need to so that you can live so that the second, fantasy obituary becomes a reality.
I've personally found that one of the very best tools for setting you up to create a meaningful obituary is the Lifebook course that I completed two years ago. It was one of the most transformative processes I've ever discovered for crystal-clear clarity, purpose, and direction in life. You can listen to an entire podcast I recorded about that experience here.
These three exercises – intimately knowing and living your purpose statement; living a life steeped in humility and meekness, and writing your own obituary – will not only give you a new perspective on your own death, but ensure that when you do die, your death is gain, and both your life and your death will have impacted the lives of many in an exponentially profound and positive way.
I encourage you to weave these practices not only into your own life but teach them to your family too so that as part of your legacy, your children and your children's children will incorporate them as honorable traditions in your family for years to come. I teach you more about the concept of meaningful traditions here.
Finally, remember. death is not a loss.
In death, our spirits will be made perfect, we will be free of sin, and we will be finished with the inner war against our flesh that constantly threatens to derail us during our journey in a mortal body (Hebrews 12:22–23). In death, we will be relieved of the pain of this world (Luke 16:24–25) and granted profound, eternal rest and serenity in our souls (Revelation 6:9–11). In death, we will be taken home to live with our Creator, finally cured of the deep homesickness that the whole human race has, even without knowing it (2 Corinthians 5:8). In death, we will get to go and be smiling with our savior Christ, forever (Philippians 1:21–23).
So death is not something you should dread.
You may even subconsciously crave it. Heck, Paul was a man who craved death and alluded to his desire to die. Once more, return to the words of Paul, who said in Philippians …
“…For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
See, we each feel a pull of heaven and yearn for an eternal bliss that goes on far after our bodies have exhaled their last breath. This is what C.S. Lewis described as a “God-shaped” hole in our hearts – an endless abyss that we can dump more money and fancy cars and bigger homes and exercise and diet and even noble pursuits such as family and charity into – but an abyss that will never feel complete, satisfying or fulfilling unless we have discovered the deep satisfaction and joy that comes from peaceful union with God.
Augustine also highlighted a similar idea when he famously wrote, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” and Indian Christian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh writes in his book With and Without Christ: “In comparison with this big world, the human heart is only a small thing. Though the world is so large, it is utterly unable to satisfy this tiny heart. Man’s ever-groaning soul and its capacities can only be satisfied in the infinite God. As water is restless until it reaches its level, so the soul has not peace until it rests in God.”
Perhaps the best summation of this God-shaped hole and the original concept of it can be found in Blaise Pascal's writings Pensées, which are a series of defenses of the Christian religion. In Pensées, Pascal says:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
So while wandering this earth during the short time that we have here, we can find ultimate peace and fulfillment through union with God – which I recommend you pursue through reading the Bible and following the commandments within it, living your life's purpose to the glory of God in full presence and selfless love for others, believing upon the Hero's Journey of Jesus, and incorporating the spiritual disciplines into your life.
But the final lasting peace and bliss come when we exhale our last breath, having lived a life that truly glorified God, and having prepared to leave this planet a better place than it was when we were born upon it. At that point, when we pass, our death will be gain.
And on that final exhale, I plan to say, as Jesus and so many other great martyrs and men and women of God that came after him said, “Into Thy hands, I commit my Spirit.”
How about you?
Will your death rock this planet? Have you written your own obituary? Do you ever think about regrets you may have when on your deathbed? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.