In the second week of The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius introduces different ways for understanding and making good choices. There are some instances, Ignatius notes, when God "so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it." In other words, the choice is immediately clear. There are also those times when the correct choice is not obvious but "much light and understanding are derived through experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of diverse spirits." In other words, clarity arrives through prayer.
There is a third instance, says Ignatius, when the first two methods don't yield a clear direction, and the retreatant finds him- or herself remaining uncertain. In that situation, Ignatius gives a few recommendations, one of which is this: "This is to consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death. I will guide myself by this and make my decision entirely in conformity with it."
I've always liked this advice and, from time to time, will rely upon it, usually to satisfying effect. But I still find it difficult, much easier said than done. What would it mean, I wonder, for me to confront my finality? What conversions would stir from breaths that carry a soon-arriving end?
A recent article from the UK's The Guardian, now making its rounds through email and social media, gives some indication of what that might mean, of what it might mean to treat the moment of death as a kind of hermeneutic for life.
In the article, Susie Steiner writes about Bronnie Ware, "an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying."
What made the list? In the words of the article:
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:
1. 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. When people realise 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 honoured 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 realise, until they no longer have it."
2. 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."
3. 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."
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realise 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."
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise 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."
I found this list to confirm what our culture already agrees upon, but it was all the more amazing to me because of that. We know the importance of authenticity. We know that work and money cannot fulfill. We know we should visit more with those we love, and less with our anxieties and consumptions.
So I guess the question is: Why don't we? Why do we wait until we are dying to acknowledge what's most worth living for? Perhaps that's part of the genius of Ignatius and the Exercises. Taking Ignatius's recommendation, we aspire for the fruits of that experience with plenty of time to spare, so that we embody our realizations instead of having them posthumously described.