Live Your Dash with No Regrets

My grandmother passed away on September 8, one week before my 41st birthday. As I wrote the poem that I recited at her funeral, I was in awe at what a full, amazing life she lived. The things that changed in her 102 years on earth are mind-boggling. But through it all, my grandmother stayed true to her faith, her values, and her family until her last days on earth. I am reminded of a poem that I am planning to have read at my own funeral called The Dash by Linda Ellis. Here is an excerpt: I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end. He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years. For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth. For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash. Like all of us, my grandmother couldn’t control the dates on her tombstone. In the end, her mind was still as sharp as ever. It was her body that eventually gave out. But we can control how we “live our dash” – and my grandmother lived hers to the fullest. Birthdays are a good time to reflect on how we are “living our dash”. Does my day-to-day life actually align with the values I say are important to me? Even though I’m almost seven years into my minimalism journey, I still have work to do in this area for sure. Luckily I’m in good health, but my grandmother’s death and my recent birthday have caused me to pose this question: if I died today, would I be happy with how I’m living my dash, or would I have any regrets? Why We Don’t Like to Think About Regrets Striving to live a more intentional life may include being more mindful of our actions, creating healthy habits, and eliminating what we no longer need to make room for the life we want. These are certainly worthy endeavors. We don’t often like to think in terms of regrets, probably because the feeling of regret is unpleasant. The definition of regret includes experiencing mourning, sorrow, and disappointment. The Wikipedia definition of regret provides an interesting nuance: The emotion of wishing one had made a different decision in the past, because the consequences of the decision were unfavorable. Regret is related to perceived opportunity. When it comes to how we are spending our time, we know that when we say yes to something, we say no to something else. Our decisions have consequences, and sometimes we miss an opportunity to spend our time in alignment with what we say is important to us. Individual decisions over a lifetime – that is our dash. In their research on regret, Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec found that “people’s biggest regrets tend to involve things they have failed to do in their lives… Actions cause more pain in the short-term, but inactions are regretted more in the long run.” So while building a life around avoiding end-of-life regrets may seem unorthodox, it is a path worth examining. And one of the most famous roadmaps for avoiding regrets at the end of your life comes from Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware. A Roadmap for Living Without Regret Bronnie Ware originally published “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” on her blog in 2009 and then published a book on the same topic. Ware’s experience as a palliative care nurse meant that she was with people during the last weeks of their lives. Themes began to emerge as to what they regretted most as they came to grips with their mortality, which can serve as a roadmap for how we choose to live our dash. 1. When saying “yes” to something, ask yourself whether it is true to the life you want, or is in response to the expectations of others. As a recovering people pleaser, I have spent most of my life doing what was expected of me. I (generally) behaved and followed the rules growing up, got good grades, and when I joined the workforce I was always the one to say yes to new projects or volunteer assignments. As a stay-at-home mom, I still struggle with understanding my motivation for pursuing an activity, whether volunteering for the PTA or extracurriculars for my kids. Is signing my son up for soccer for his benefit, or is it a response to what I think is “expected” based upon what other families are doing? I don’t want to be stretched thin or over-schedule my kids, but living in such a competitive area where rushing around is the norm causes me to doubt whether my chosen path is the right one. Do a time audit of your week. How many of your activities are done out of guilt or obligation? What activities are actually true to the life you want for yourself and your family? Understanding the role of exp

Live Your Dash with No Regrets

My grandmother passed away on September 8, one week before my 41st birthday. As I wrote the poem that I recited at her funeral, I was in awe at what a full, amazing life she lived. The things that changed in her 102 years on earth are mind-boggling. But through it all, my grandmother stayed true to her faith, her values, and her family until her last days on earth.

I am reminded of a poem that I am planning to have read at my own funeral called The Dash by Linda Ellis. Here is an excerpt:

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.

Like all of us, my grandmother couldn’t control the dates on her tombstone. In the end, her mind was still as sharp as ever. It was her body that eventually gave out. But we can control how we “live our dash” – and my grandmother lived hers to the fullest.

Birthdays are a good time to reflect on how we are “living our dash”. Does my day-to-day life actually align with the values I say are important to me? Even though I’m almost seven years into my minimalism journey, I still have work to do in this area for sure. Luckily I’m in good health, but my grandmother’s death and my recent birthday have caused me to pose this question: if I died today, would I be happy with how I’m living my dash, or would I have any regrets?

Why We Don’t Like to Think About Regrets

Striving to live a more intentional life may include being more mindful of our actions, creating healthy habits, and eliminating what we no longer need to make room for the life we want. These are certainly worthy endeavors. We don’t often like to think in terms of regrets, probably because the feeling of regret is unpleasant. The definition of regret includes experiencing mourning, sorrow, and disappointment. The Wikipedia definition of regret provides an interesting nuance:

The emotion of wishing one had made a different decision in the past, because the consequences of the decision were unfavorable. Regret is related to perceived opportunity.

When it comes to how we are spending our time, we know that when we say yes to something, we say no to something else. Our decisions have consequences, and sometimes we miss an opportunity to spend our time in alignment with what we say is important to us. Individual decisions over a lifetime – that is our dash.

In their research on regret, Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec found that “people’s biggest regrets tend to involve things they have failed to do in their lives… Actions cause more pain in the short-term, but inactions are regretted more in the long run.”

So while building a life around avoiding end-of-life regrets may seem unorthodox, it is a path worth examining. And one of the most famous roadmaps for avoiding regrets at the end of your life comes from Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware.

A Roadmap for Living Without Regret

Bronnie Ware originally published “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” on her blog in 2009 and then published a book on the same topic. Ware’s experience as a palliative care nurse meant that she was with people during the last weeks of their lives. Themes began to emerge as to what they regretted most as they came to grips with their mortality, which can serve as a roadmap for how we choose to live our dash.

1. When saying “yes” to something, ask yourself whether it is true to the life you want, or is in response to the expectations of others.

As a recovering people pleaser, I have spent most of my life doing what was expected of me. I (generally) behaved and followed the rules growing up, got good grades, and when I joined the workforce I was always the one to say yes to new projects or volunteer assignments. As a stay-at-home mom, I still struggle with understanding my motivation for pursuing an activity, whether volunteering for the PTA or extracurriculars for my kids. Is signing my son up for soccer for his benefit, or is it a response to what I think is “expected” based upon what other families are doing? I don’t want to be stretched thin or over-schedule my kids, but living in such a competitive area where rushing around is the norm causes me to doubt whether my chosen path is the right one.

Do a time audit of your week. How many of your activities are done out of guilt or obligation? What activities are actually true to the life you want for yourself and your family? Understanding the role of expectations in our life is critical to living our dash well.

2. A good work ethic is commendable, but a constant state of busyness sows the seeds of burnout and discontent.

We live in a hustle culture. Being busy is the norm, so much so that if we’re not cramming as much as we can into each waking moment, culture tells us we’re not living to our full potential. Someone else is doing it faster and better than we are. Even though we complain about how busy we are, we see everyone’s lives around us – rushing around, scheduled to the last minute – and we wonder if that’s what we need to do so that we and our kids don’t “fall behind”. Even though COVID restrictions are the reality for people in some areas of the world, where I am activities have resumed at a frenetic pace. As much as I try to ignore it, the nagging feeling of missing out still creeps up on me.

But although the culture of busy surrounds us, it is also something that people regret the most at the end of their lives. Spending intentional time in stillness allows us to reflect and to hear our inner voice, the voice drowned out by distraction and noise. Intentional white space on our family calendar allows us to truly connect with the people we say are most important to us. As Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” Make a list of the things that keep you “busy” during the week. Then write beside it whether it is life-giving or life-draining. At the end of your life, will you regret that you spent your time on so many life-draining activities? Which ones can you say “no” to today?

3. If you are suppressing your feelings to keep the peace in a relationship or make someone else happy, the resentment and bitterness you may be carrying are likely weighing you down.

Think about the relationships in your life. Where are you carrying resentment and bitterness? There are few things as toxic to our emotional health as resentment. In different seasons in my motherhood, I’ve been frustrated about the things I “had” to do, but I’ve always had healthy relationships where I could fully express my feelings (shout out to my wonderful husband) so that frustrations didn’t grow into resentment. But in the absence of these healthy relationships, resentment can be, as Saint Augustine said, “like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Do an audit of your relationships to see where you are holding onto anger, resentment, or bitterness. Consider seeking out a neutral party such as a friend or therapist to share your feelings with, or write your thoughts in a journal to help you work through them. Resentment robs you of being able to live your dash to the fullest.

4. You know that friend you’ve been meaning to call? Call them. (No, not just text. Like call. On the phone. Remember phones?)

Just as it’s important to do an audit of your relationships where you are harboring anger and resentment, it’s important to do an audit of your friendships to see where you want to spend your precious time and energy. As we get older and our own responsibilities increase, it can be more difficult to maintain deep, meaningful friendships. We may decide instead of calling a dear friend that a quick text message will suffice. Nothing against text messaging, of course, but there is something to be said of having a richer connection with the people we love, either via voice, video, or even in-person.

Not only are friendships vital to our physical and emotional health (boosting immunity and lowering stress), but letting treasured friendships slip away is one of the biggest regrets of those who are dying. If you died tomorrow, who would you regret not connecting with today and letting them know how much they mean to you?

5. Happiness is a choice and must be actively pursued in the face of the fear of the unknown. Our comfort zones are intended to keep us safe, but not necessarily happy.

“Are you happy?” It is a question I often get from my three-year-old son (usually after he’s done something that definitely does NOT make me happy). It is a question we ask ourselves and may ask others in different seasons of life. But Ware makes the distinction that people don’t necessarily regret not being happy, they regret not letting themselves be happier. This is an important detail because it signals that happiness is something that we can choose, and many times (due to what others may think, a feeling of obligation, fear of the unknown, or other reasons), we don’t allow ourselves to experience the happiness that we know deep down could be ours.

Ask yourself the simple question, “How could I let myself be happier?” What would you need to let go of in order to make the brave choice to become the happiest version of yourself? Is it the fear of losing a relationship? Your job? Going against the expectations of others? Living your dash to the fullest involves recognizing whether our comfort zone will cause us regret at the end of our lives, and moving past it to allow ourselves the happiness we deserve.

Living my Dash: A Birthday Reflection

Whether you use the five regrets of the dying, your values, or other reflective exercises to help you live a more intentional, purpose-filled life, living our dash means that we base our short-term actions upon our long-term vision and values. Since we don’t know how long “long-term” means, we seek to live every day in a way that is true to ourselves and the legacy we want to leave.

I recently wrote this poem about living my dash that I want to share. I hope it inspires you to come up with your own “dash manifesto”:

I don’t want to die with kind words unspoken
When I leave this world, they’ll be my heartfelt tokens
I once was asleep, but now I’ve awoken
I don’t want to die with kind words unspoken

I don’t want to die with my love unexpressed
While there’s breath in my lungs and my heart beats in my chest
All will know through my actions and each word professed
I don’t want to die with my love unexpressed

I don’t want to die with my gifts still inside me
Even if fear and doubt sometimes pull close beside me
I was born to create, with my Creator to guide me
I don’t want to die with my gifts still inside me

I don’t want to die with my story untold
I will share as the seasons of my life unfold
When I let go it will be what my children can hold
I don’t want to die with my story untold