There's a booming genre in wee books of things to see or do "before you die." I don't read these books, but Australian hospice nurse Bronnie Ware's recently-published book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, did catch my attention.
Ware found that her patients' regrets weren't about things done imperfectly. We forgive the imperfections of our actions—and we regret our inactions. The inept parent, for example, can forgive himself at the end. At least he tried. But the one who never attempted it might feel the sting of regret.
I was most intrigued to hear Ware describe the number one regret as a failure of courage. Her patients wished that they had had the courage to live the life that they wanted to have, whatever it was, and not the one that others had prescribed for them.
I believe that wisdom applies to marriage and relationships. There are couples who are content with the marriage and family life status quo, certainly, but there are others, well-intentioned and married to decent people, who struggle with that status quo and would like to create a different life, if only they could muster the courage to try, to ask a tough question, to make a change, to speak honestly, or to color outside of the lines.
Whatever the case, it occurred to me after listening to Ware that the bucket list that really seems to matter is about relationships more than activities, experiences, things, or travel.
So here's my list of some human encounters that we should try to have before we die. I bet that any of these relationship experiences would be as sweetly-recalled at life's end as having seen the pyramids, or that time you tried bungee-jumping in a parking lot.
FIND THE "I'D LOVE TO GO TO THE GARBAGE DUMP WITH YOU" BEST FRIEND. This friendship is so effortless and rejuvenating that you'd rather be in the company of that person, even doing the dreariest chore, than almost anywhere else. The wonderful Anne Lamott writes it best:"When you have a friend like this, she can say, 'Hey, I've got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma—wanna come along?' and you honestly can't think of anything in the world you'd rather do."
BE A TORCH CARRIER (BUT NOT A STALKER). It's good to experience both being the lover and the beloved at some point in life, both Dante and Beatrice. Often in romantic relationships, the roles are asymmetrical in this way, although we don't like to admit it. Unequal love in romantic relationships is as much an unseemly, unspoken truth as parental favoritism. But there's a bittersweet pleasure to clutching an abiding, unrequited passion in your memory. The object of desire remains an ideal, untainted by actual consummation. And there's a courage, too, although best appreciated retrospectively, in having made an ass out of yourself for love—so long as you can take no for an answer, and quit. I've not been a stranger to my own "make an ass" out of yourself advice, but it's a small, unavoidable price to pay for agency and self-determination.
AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, HAVE A LOVE AFFAIR WITH YOUR WORK. Lord knows few of us think of our work as a relationship, to say nothing of a love story, but it can be. It can elicit powerful emotions and profound devotion and joy. In other words, it can be a love affair. I love my work. I love the process of it. I love it even when I fail at it. The work itself satisfies, on its own terms and not instrumentally for any secondary praise, glory or wealth (hah!) that it might bring. It's such a gift to wake up in the morning and have a big old crush on your job, or your new project.
BE A DEFENDER OF THE WEAK. At least once, and hopefully habitually, be the one who stands up for someone weaker in a social group. Don't be the lemming. In middle school, I was the beneficiary of a more popular, prettier girl who stood up for me, the social weakling. When I had a chance to do the same for her, however, in a different time and place, I didn't. I was a lemming instead. And 32 years later, I can still feel keenly the shame of having gone along when I should have stood up. I only vaguely remember being the occasional bully victim-but I do remember, and rue, having enabled a bully. That shame sticks.
BE THE "COOL GROWN-UP" that someone else's child remembers, years, later, as a hazy blur of panache and style. I always wanted to be this, but haven't been.
HAVE THE PLEASURE OF STAYING UP ALL NIGHT TALKING (TO OTHER PEOPLE, THAT IS). These evenings are some of my favorites. My husband and I were very close to one couple some time ago. Our evenings with them would start with dinner and wine, and end when the sun was coming up over Baltimore's downtown. We'd talked and laughed so much that my sides hurt, and my voice was scratchy that whole next day.
HAVE A CRAZY-MAD LUST-LOVE RELATIONSHIP that involves, say, spending days entirely in a hotel bed and never tiring of each other's carnality. Keep the blinds down, and drink good wine while you do this, and don't forget that everyone would be insanely jealous if they knew, so you should keep it to yourself.
BE SOMEONE'S "REALITY-BASED" FRIEND. You courageously get to say, and do say, all of the unpleasant truths and hard advice. The friend hearing it might loathe you for having said so at first and then, years later, thank you for your candor, which they come to see as a gesture of caring.
*THIS COLUMN ALSO APPEARS AT BIG THINK MAGAZINE.