I listen to a short little podcast by the BBC called the Why Factor. In one episode, Mike Williams speaks to Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse in Australia who spends her days comforting the elderly residents of hospice. Throughout her time listening carefully to these people and their reflections on their lives as they lie so close to death, Bronnie listened to dreams unfulfilled, their extinguished yearnings; regrets. She wrote a book entitled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, in which she identifies the most common regrets, narrowing them down into five general categories. Bronnie says that “three quarters of people wish they’d done things differently,” and the number one most common regret was, “people wishing they had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life that others had expected from them.” Bronnie says, “People realized they had shaped their lives according to other people’s expectations, not according to what their heart actually wanted them to do,” she said, ”that was so common, it was awful.”
Are you surprised to know this is the number one regret of the dying? I am not. This makes the most sense to me, as I struggle with this, and I am grateful for the opportunity to struggle through this so early in life. Spiritual leaders of all religions, because of the immense human fear of an end, pedal the belief that one never dies but moves from one life to another, and based on this belief, easily entreat us to dedicate our one single fleeting life, our one brief moment in the majestic but transient cosmos, to a life of restrictions, repression, and sacrifice. I am writing this blog to spread the news: You only have one life to live, and I want you to know that it belongs to you; it is yours.
I am writing this because I believe I have found the courage to live a life built from my own convictions, according to the contents of my own heart. I am writing this because I want you to find your courage, too. I am writing this for you.
I am writing this for you because I know what it is like to be asked, by friend or family, to live a life according to their beliefs because it would make them happy; to live a life of lies to satisfy their convictions, as though I were not seen as a person but merely a mechanism to support their worldview. I know what it is like to have people checking in with my wife, seeking intimate details of my life in an attempt to ascertain my current level of religious activity, as though I am someone who is pitifully ill, and they are casually checking in on my welfare. I know what it is like to be called a heretic, and although I don’t consider it much of a slur, I know what it is like to see the people around me fan when I need them to stand up for me.
Navigating my way through the catacombs of religion in search of the exit was not truly difficult for me, but I know how difficult it is to finally make that mad dash toward the light, and I know what it is like to fear the repercussions. I know how bitter and disheartening it feels to reach the sodality of secular humanism only to find the door locked. I know how lonely it is to lay in its purgative doorway, yearning for the jubilation resonating from within.
I am writing this series of essays for you, and I am writing them so easily because I have written them all before thousands of times over in my head. I have neglected to publish my thoughts because, unlike the hordes of frauds and narcissists whose sermons flood my Facebook feed daily, I am not in love with my own voice, I cannot stand being in front of a camera, and I dread the possibility that my words could be seen as lacking. (I can spend a sorry amount of time moving around commas on a simple Facebook comment while dreaming of a copy editor.) I fear my shortcomings and my possible failure.
Epiphany came when I realized that the Rabbi who posts a video offering “scientific evidence,” that he has clearly failed to vet, doesn’t share my concern with regard to his own integrity. The Rabbi who speaks to groups of young girls about their self-esteem and modesty does not seem to share my humility with regard to his unabashed sciolism. The Rabbi who confidently explains why children turn gay, without provoking a single question about the manner in which he came upon such information, doesn’t seem to fear the infallibility of his ultracrepidarian enterprise, in fact he seems to think he is altogether infallible. And, while these vile shepherds are gaining new sheep everyday, I am being implored by the “moderates” among us not to pursue this.
I do not want my deathbed regret to be that I never tried, that I fanned in the face of failure, that my extremely introverted personality got the best of me and held me back, or that I deferred to the imposing success of the business of religion and held my own door open for the sorry characters who sell it.
I’ve always known that I owe it to myself to speak out, to speak out and use my skills to fight, no matter how daunting it seemed. But now I realize I owe it to you, too. I am not doing this for the “likes.” I may never know how many people I reach, but as long as there is a possibility that I may help some kid somewhere who is stuck in religion, stuck in someone else’s life or in someone else’s clothes, it seems to me imperative that I proceed. I am doing this to be true to myself, and I am doing this for you.
I know how it feels to reach out to the atheist personalities that inspired me to think critically about religion, wanting some acknowledgment, a response to an email, a reply to a message. Originally I wanted my blog to fill in a Jewish niche, but I want it to fill in another niche, that is to help those who missed the party boat because they are stuck in the shadows; unheard and overlooked.
I own my life, as you own yours, and we will not expire from life with the regret that we lived someone else’s. I will continue to delve deeper into the ideas above in coming posts. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.” – Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason)