Wednesday, February 8, 2012


TOP FIVE REGRETS OF THE DYING (according to a hospice nurse)
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 that I had let myself be happier.

What's your greatest regret so far, and what will you set out to achieve or change before you die?
This may change, but at this point I agree most whole-heartedly with # 5: I wish I had let myself be happier. In my case, I wish I’d let myself be happier sooner in life. My philosophy used to be, “Happiness is for the pigs.”

Where I diverge is in thinking, “I wish I had worked harder.” This is pretty much the same as letting myself be happy, since the harder I work, the happier I feel (I mean what a friend called “soul work”: writing and teaching). When I think of the time I wasted on depression when I could have been writing or otherwise been productive, or even just reading, developing myself – or, if nothing else, enjoying myself in some other manner, though nothing makes me as happy as doing the work I love – this waste of time is something I can hardly bear to think to think about. (So I don’t; living in regret would also be a waste of time, that is: of life.)

I also differ when it comes to “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.” I wish that in my earlier years I’d had the courage to keep my mouth shut instead of so readily expressing my feelings, without thinking how it might hurt another person. This mistake is long behind me, except that, I’m told, my facial expressions still give me away (and my feelings are intense, including disgust – at least I don’t do that deliberately any more).

Finally, it’s possible that I’ve stayed in touch with friends a bit too much. I used to write long letters, and I do write a lot of email. It’s quick, facile writing, but it does take up time. And time is the greatest wealth. I treasure friendship, but I need to guard my time more carefully. (It’s beyond me how Henry James could write those 16-page letters and still have time to compose his long novels. Maybe that’s part of the “energy of genius.”)

My greatest regret is having wasted a lot of time, mainly but not only on being depressed. I wonder where I might be intellectually if I’d been more self-disciplined in the use of time. It’s only now that I ask myself, “Do I really need to browse through the New York Times every day? or Psychology Today? Or is this kind of reading simply my television? (Susan Sontag delighted me by saying, “Reading is my television.”)

You may say, “But everyone needs some R&R. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Go ahead and browse the New York Times.” I’m sure I will, now and then, out of sheer curiosity. But mostly, after a browsing session, I feel no gain at all. Only rarely does anything stay in my mind and makes me think. And if there is a truly important article, friends will let me know.

I hope to develop further as a poet and writer (I love doing my blog), and to grow in wisdom, which automatically means growing in kindness too. I hope to keep on working as long as possible (Christopher Hitchens is my role model here – this is how an atheist dies with grace).

Work is my lifeline, but it has to be quality work, something at which I can excel. Producing excellent work takes time. Thus I had to take a good look at my time wasters, such as Facebook and New York Times and Psychology Today.

The reason that Christian heaven has always struck me as BBB (“boring beyond belief”) is that there is no productive work there. For me that would be hell.

One time, when I spoke of being busy with work, a male friend objected, “What you do is not work. It’s play. You get to use your talent. You enjoy it.” I could have told him of the bloody sweat aspect of writing poetry, and the chores and headaches that come with both writing and teaching. But I let him think he was right: my work was play. Or rather, a privilege. In my youth I worked at various “survival jobs” that I did not enjoy, such as being temporary office help, and I realize that people who say they wish they hadn’t worked so hard mean jobs that did not feel like soul work.

However, one lesson I learned from my survival jobs was that even those jobs became more satisfying if I worked with dedication. Dedication energizes; boredom makes one tired. The Preacher knew it well: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). And the hospice nurse who interviewed the dying about their regrets is most likely a very dedicated person, like all the hospice workers I’ve met. I don’t think she will ever say, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

But I am truly grateful that my work utilizes my talents. Everyone has some kind of talent. Ideally, schools should help a young person discover that talent, and start developing it. Job satisfaction is one of the best predictors of health and longevity.

And of course “work” and “job” are not necessarily synonyms. I remember one time when I went to the lab for blood tests, and the technician told me right away, somewhat out of the blue, “This is what I do for a living, but my real work is photography” (yes, that was in Los Angeles, where the perennial joke is that every waitress is an actress-in-waiting).

Like everyone, I have seen a lot of older people merely vegetating, even when they are still healthy. They have failed to discover what it is they love doing, so they watch TV a lot, and grow more and more depressed. I think that’s tragic.


I had an interesting experience in the late fall of 2011. I read a biography of Lenin, mysteriously and wonderfully available at the give-and-take book shelf at the Y (or not so mysteriously, since it was part of Reader’s Digest condensed books).  I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of intense envy that I experienced, especially while reading about Lenin’s quiet life abroad, when pretty much all he did was read, write, and take long walks. Of course he read and wrote with a terrific sense of purpose, and I envied him that more than anything. I knew that his dedication was to the wrong cause, that what he wrote was wrong, that the world would be a better place had Lenin never been born. And yet . . . I admit I was consumed with envy. The deliberate, dedicated life. The clarity of purpose. The regular daily output – here was a man who obviously loved working very hard.

The paragraph above is not meant as an homage to Lenin. I repeat: the world would be a better place if Lenin had never been born (I don’t think Trotsky and Stalin would have accomplished the revolution by themselves; young Trotsky wasn’t even interested in setting up a dictatorship, inclining to democracy). It’s only that reading about Lenin’s daily routine opened my eyes to how much I loved that kind of focus and simplicity.

It would be fascinating to know what kind of regrets Lenin had toward the end of his life – when he could still think clearly, before his three strokes damaged his brain. He probably had some regrets about mistakes such as the 1920 invasion of Poland or the appointment of Stalin to high office . . . but I truly wonder about was whether he missed the quiet life he had in Switzerland. He loved being an intellectual, a writer; party meetings exhausted him (if only he had “followed his bliss” and remained a theoretician!). Whatever his regrets might have truly been, I don’t think he ever thought, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Nor have I ever heard an artist say, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time in the studio.” When work and vocation are synonyms, work is life’s greatest blessing, ahead even of love and friendship. Ahead, but by not a great deal. After all, even though I’m a work person rather than a people person, where would I be without people who appreciate my work?



But I don’t mean to elevate “creative work” at the price of putting down what might be called “ordinary work.” Deep respect for any work that’s useful has been one of America’s gifts to me. Europe is definitely more elitist, and yet it was Britain’s Philip Larkin who, in the last line of his famous “Aubade,” wrote what for me is the most moving tribute to the healing role of work:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape. 
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know, 
Have always known, know that we can't escape, 
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go. 
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring 
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring 
Intricate rented world begins to rouse. 
The sky is white as clay, with no sun. 
Work has to be done. 
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin’s biographer, Andrew Motion, writes, “Larkin had died at 1:24 a.m., turning to the nurse who was with him, squeezing her hand, and saying faintly, I am going to the inevitable.” Larkin always knew that the inevitable would prevail. I am glad that he didn’t die alone – there was at least the nurse whose hand he could take. And above all I am glad that he managed to leave us his poems, including “Aubade,” whose last lines were the first praise of work in poetry that I ever remember reading.

Work has to be done. 
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


By the way, besides being a poet, Larkin was a dedicated librarian, admired by his staff. To quote the Preacher in full: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

“Above us, only sky” ~ John Lennon, “Imagine”


I found this in a fascinating article posted on the Psychology Today website:

Terminally ill movie mogul: I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything important.
Mark Goulston: How can you say that?  You have a hospital wing named after you, you’ve created many jobs and the public loved you.
Patient: I have all the love that money can buy and that’s all it’s worth.  I also have some ex-wives that I screwed over financially, a bunch of kids who can’t support themselves, and the utter foolishness to think I could beat the odds by smoking two packs a day… and now I’ve dying of lung cancer at 54.
Eventually Mark succeeds with this approach:
MG: Look you aren’t evil.  You’re flawed, but so what? Everyone else is.  So you were an a**hole.  Big deal. You did do a lot of good. Just let it go.
Patient: Maybe you’re right.

After two weeks and a handful of subsequent meetings to spackle together as much peace of mind as possible, my patient died peacefully.
This man certainly had regrets . . . and they were creating hell for him in the last weeks of his life. I am so glad that the right healer came along with the correct antidote. It’s so interesting that the man who created jobs and delighted the public was refusing to see the good things he did. This is in line with the observation that we often project our good qualities on others, instead of owning up to them. Everyone seems to know that we project our own bad traits (e.g. the tendency to procrastinate, or being indecisive) on others, but we probably go the other way just as much if not more. I hope that the hospice nurse who interviewed patients about their greatest regrets also asked them about the best things those patients did. Some people have tremendous trouble acknowledging themselves (having been raised in a culture that frowns on self-praise as boasting and the deadly sin of pride, I know this well). Ideally, this post would have a companion post about the five top things that the dying are happy they did. Now, that might turn out to be a truly inspiring post.

I’ve also just recalled the Interfaith Panel on Death and Afterlife. Both rabbis said that never talked to the dying about “going to heaven.” Instead, they tried to make the person remember his or her accomplishments, and the love this person gave to and received from others. 


Your comments on the Lenin bio were very interesting. I have read Lenin was an enthusiastic chess player and poetry reader. At first glance the two would seem to be opposing interests but chess is structured and orderly and of course poetry in various forms is just as formal. But chess can be played with abandon too, just like a free verse poem. You are so right, if only Lenin had remained a theorist.


Nothing surprising about Lenin’s love of chess and poetry: he obviously loved structure, strategy, clear outlines. Yes, if only he had remained a theorist.

I am somewhat embarrassed about having felt my “Lenin envy” while reading his biography – especially the years in Switzerland. The modest, orderly, quiet life of reading, writing, and long alpine walks (my vision of paradise, I confess). Tranströmer begins his poem “Citoyens” with this invocation of the type of person Wallace Stevens would later call a “rational lunatic”:

The night after the accident I dreamt of a pockmarked man
who walked along the alleys singing.
Not the other one – Robespierre took no such walks.

Alas, his walks over and the October Revolution begun, Lenin turned into Robespierre – except worse. “Revolutions are the locomotive of history,” he wrote, as if not aware that soon they become runaway locomotives and a reign of terror follows. “Revolution devours its children” – those famous words are attributed to Danton, himself in the end one of the devoured. But I digress.

Lenin was known for exceptional dedication and single-mindedness – some might call it obsession and narrow vision. Reading about his hard work, I envied that kind of sense of purpose, forgetting that it might be blinding. Christopher Hutchins, remembering his loss of Marxist beliefs, brought me back to reality:

“There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.”

Yes, I do feel better now that Catholicism is a semi-nostalgic, semi-hateful memory, and no blind obedience to absurd doctrine weighs on me, no suppression of thought. My most common sin was what Orwell wonderfully called “thought crime” – my mind seemed to have a “mind of its own,” prone to wondering and “sinning in thought.” So at least as the Church goes, no regrets about leaving it. And no regrets about all the subsequent spiritual seeking having come up empty, rejecting every theology – but gaining a belief in kindness, generosity, and moderation. No regrets about no longer being on a spiritual quest.

My fervent energy has never quite found a fully satisfying outlet, but the positive side of that is that I haven’t become a fanatic of any cause. As my friend Hyacinth pointed out, potential regrets can morph into blessings. Not having total faith in something, anything, once seemed a loss, but now I see it as intellectual freedom. I am not a prisoner of any idea. Kindness and generosity are guiding ideals, but so is moderation – I don’t try to be a saint (at the height of my Catholicism, I did nurse that secret ambition, though worried it too might be a thought crime, the deadly sin of pride).

So, in the end, no “Lenin envy.” True, I have an inkling of the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of fanaticism. My mother often remarked that I had the temperament of a fanatic, but blessedly I have developed detachment and the ability to see many sides to every issue. Let me quote Tranströmer again, the middle section of “Below Freezing”:

One can’t say it out loud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That’s why the furniture seems so heavy. And why it is so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sunlight that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: “Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.”

If only we had such an honest biblical saying. If only we stopped yearning for blind submission to a “great cause” and noticed the wonderful small beauties of a spot of sunlight slipping over the flickering faces. Imagine, if the closed medieval mentality truly receded and true, difficult thinking came to be appreciated rather than Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum – “I believe because it’s absurd” or “it’s impossible, therefore it must be true” (that’s why the “leap of faith” is needed to reach that blind submission that makes Abraham willing to kill his son). I know I am a dreamer. But imagine: nothing to kill for or die for. Yes, sooner Lennon than Lenin. 


A great post, Oriana, but aren’t you overdoing the work part? What happened to the idea of a “balanced life”?


Did any great artist or scientist or business genius ever live a “balanced life”? Would anyone say to Dickens, “Come on, you’ve written enough novels. Time to take it easy”? Great achievers have always been, above all, workaholics. It’s much more appealing to believe that all it takes is talent, but in fact it takes talent and all the focus, self-discipline and endless practice that’s humanly possible, ideally starting at the age of nine. True, some people can be too compulsive and not get enough sleep, for instance; chronic shortage of sleep will exact its toll. And yet I never sleep better than after a day in which I’m truly satisfied with the amount and quality of work I’ve accomplished. When I lie in bed smiling to myself, I know I’ll sleep well. 

In a recent article, Seinfeld and Glee Won’t Make You Healthy , Howard Friedman says the following:

Our striking findings in The Longevity Project upend the common advice from the lands of laugh therapy, self-esteem clinics, and indulgent parents. In fact, sometimes worrying turned out to be a very good thing. Many of the boys, girls, men and women we studied for so many years were happy and healthy because of the meaningful lives they led—that is, lives full of dedicated work, genuine friends, and dependable lifestyles. Laughter from the joys of accomplishment and involvement turned out to be an indicator of thriving, but watching the funniest TV shows all evening while you sit alone and eat is definitely not the ticket to health. "Cheer up and live long" is a dead-end myth. (emphasis mine; I assume that by “dependable lifestyles” the author means a settled lifestyle and a steady routine).

Dedicated work means going the extra mile. But “genuine friends” come as a close second. That’s really what Freud said is most important in life: “love and work.” I interpret “love” here to include deep friendship and the “true love” that follows the initial infatuation stage for the lucky few among lovers. And I strongly suspect that by “work” Freud (an intense workaholic) meant the kind of work that you love and find meaningful. Perhaps the happiest life is the kind in which you’d never even think of saying, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
But yes, you have to time for friendship. At least in between creative retreats. 


  1. I love your comment: "Nor have I ever heard an artist say, 'I wish I hadn’t spent so much time in the studio.'"

    It's absolutely true.

    My father in law, a painter, is 87 years old this year and still spends 8-9 a day in the studio.

    If you try to get him out of the studio, he's not happy.

    Here's a blog I did on him a couple of years ago:

  2. I enjoy your comments on work or at least on doing as an admirable subject of poetry, though not one much emphasized these days. The first truly remarkable poem about work that I read was Robert Frost's "The Tuft of Flowers," which is, in my view anyway, the best poem in _A Boy's Will_, especially the last couplet:

    "Men work together," I told him from the heart,
    "Whether they work together or apart."

    When Krushchev came to the US for the first time one of the people with whom he wished to talk was Frost, not because Frost had any left-wing sympathies (he definitely did not), but because he understood this feeling of community among those who work.

    When I consider work like Masters' _Spoon River Anthology_ and Robinson's Tilbury Town poems, I think how rich in the poetry of work America is. Still, the only poet of work I can find today is B.H. Fairchild, whose poems of the machine shops of his youth provide a great wealth of a truly American subject matter expressed in a positive way. If you haven't read him, you might want to dive into _The Art of the Lathe_.

    Thanks for the post, Oriana.

  3. Thank you, John and Robert.

    Picasso comes to mind as someone who spent nine hours a day in his studio even in his old age. Those who might wonder how he managed to keep up such vitality have the answer in plain sight: doing the work you love doing energizes you.

    You are right, Robert, about the scarcity of good poems about work. Philip Levine can be depressing . . . though he generally acknowledges the dignity of the worker (in any field). In interviews I read him acknowledge the community of workers as a beautiful part of their life -- the co-workers as a family -- but not particularly in his poems.

    Fairchild is more likely to show us the pride skilled workers take in producing quality. I liked "The Art of the Lathe" very much.

    Maybe the key word is "quality." If we can exercise our skill and talent to produce something of quality, this makes us happy. I remember a segment of 60 Minutes on the Rolls-Royce factory, showing a master mechanic at work. The man was beaming with pride and happiness. "I am the best in the world," his face seemed to say. If only we had a world with more opportunities for producing quality . . .

  4. I also love what the piano virtuoso Vladimir Ashkenazy said: “If you know that what you are doing is right, it doesn’t matter when others recognize it; even if they never do.” Alan Arkin said, “I am only concerned with being good . . . I do not have the need to be appreciated by thousands, now or later.” Some people might respond to such remarks with “Oh, sure; when you are famous, you can disdain recognition.” Yet I sense a deep truth in the comments by Arkin and Ashkenazy: what matters most if you know you are doing the right thing, and doing it well. That’s a great source of happiness.

  5. Oriana, as a dedicated workaholic, always running as fast as I can to remain in the same place (like Alice in Wonderland), I completely agree with the statement "work is happiness" - remember the studies of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? He was the pioneer of the psychology of happiness and discovered the state of "Flow" when we create something and time disappears, as we are so engrossed in the work and so intensely happy. I'm truly happy with my latest project, "Meditations on Divine Names" - working on things like that is actually a form of leisure. It is a spiritual rest to go to that place and meet other minds, other people on their paths to happiness. Some call it "blessing" others "ecstasy," others still, "the flow."

  6. Thank you, Maja, for reminding me Mihaly C's (I suspect his name translates as Michael Saintmichael)concept of FLOW. How could I have forgotten?!! Yes, being so completely engrossed in our task that we our outside of time, outside of the self and even outside the body, with its little itches and munchies and sneezes -- how distracting the body is!

    My greatest regret is definitely not having worked harder -- that is, having wasted time on the futile brooding of depression, while I could have been so happy simply reading and writing about what I was reading. Sometimes I suspect that by some perverse law we have to get sick and tired of suffering first, to stop feeling that it's our suffering that's important. Suffering may have dignity at first, but not past a certain point. Then it becomes just a waste of time, a waste of life.

    Thank you, dear Maja, for a wonderful comment. And thank you for making me ponder the point that we don't necessarily have to accomplish anything grand by doing what we love doing. So what if we remain in the same place, as long as it's a happy place. I've become a believer in happiness for the sake of happiness, in happiness as "reason enough." Raised in the belief that we're here not to feel good, but to do good, I'm beginning to think that if we are happy, we probably do more good without even trying.

  7. There is a sad truth to finding a way out of depression: as much as you already hate yourself for no good reason, it's necessary to admit that it's not all for no good reason. Most of us need to get to the point where we ought to and deserve to feel bad about our lives before we begin to do the blunt uncaring work of turning things around.

  8. Sorry to have found this comment so late. If you are saying that the depressed person DESERVES to feel bad, I think it very much depends on the case, and in most cases that wouldn't hold. A lot of people blame themselves for all kinds of things, whereas it was really the circumstances. We don't like to give circumstances much weight, yet we need to. As depression progresses, the negative thinking and self-loathing gets downright delusional. The main outcome of my dropping depression (you could say that my brain did it for me: I experienced a profound shift in perception)has been productivity, which in turn led to other positive outcomes. My greatest sorrow is that I "did depression" for so many years, wasting so much time crying and making myself miserable with automatic negative thoughts. I could have been writing, I could have been out walking, or watching a good movie, reading a good book . . . that wasted time never comes back. But no use sighing . . . I'm writing a new post, and the writing is making me happy.