“The distresses of choice,” W.H. Auden observed, “are our chance to be blessed.” Not just any choices, mind you, but the distressing ones, the ones that test your character, define your center of values, clarify your priorities. Choices that define the world in which we live. Choices that reveal whether we’re ready for the life God has marked out for us. Choices like the ones Jesus is said to have made following his baptism, when he was led – older sources say driven – into the wilderness.
The choices Jesus made are well known to us now. Will I serve my self-interest or the interest of the larger life to which I am called? (Will I turn stones into bread?) Will I trust God implicitly, without any evidence that God is trustworthy? (Will I throw myself from the pinnacle of the temple to show that the angels will protect me from harm?) Will I serve the personal acquisition of earthly power instead of emptying myself to serve only God’s power? (Will I trade my soul for all the kingdoms of the world?)
It’s interesting to me that these key choices, which are the choices all of us must make in one way or another, come after Jesus was baptized, after he made his commitment to serve God’s will in his life. The real choice is not whether we will begin an intentional journey of faith. The real choice, the defining choice, is whether, once we’ve made that commitment, we will let our faith shape our lives from day to day, moment by moment.
Although we face the same choices Jesus made in his wilderness, we face others that weren’t mentioned in scripture. They’re choices that test the depth of the life we live and determine how it turns out in the end.
After many years of unfulfilling work, Bronnie Ware began searching for a job with meaning, and she ended up working in palliative care, tending to the needs of those who were dying. She listened to them talk about their lives, about the outcome of the choices they had made, and about what they had learned from having made those choices. And five years ago, she published a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, in which she discussed the significance of those regrets and how we all can make better, more life-giving choices. Here are those top five regrets, the top five choices that will define the character of our lives.
First, the most common regret of all was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” “Live true to your own heart,” one of Ware’s patients said to her. “Don’t ever worry about what others think.”
In one of the sayings from the Desert Fathers, one of Rabbi Zuzya’s disciples asked him what he expected when he entered heaven, and he answered, “When I get to heaven, they will not ask me why was I not more like Moses. They will ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Zuzya?’” When that time comes for me, God will not ask me why I was not more like Jesus. God will ask me, “Why were you not more like Richard?”
The second most common regret of the dying was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” “There’s nothing wrong with wanting a better life,” one of Ware’s patients said. “It’s just that the chase for more, and the need to be recognized through our achievements and belongings, can hinder us from the real things, like time with those we love, time doing things we love ourselves, and balance. It’s probably all about balance really, isn’t it?”
“You are worried and distracted by many things,” Jesus said to Martha and often says to me; “there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:41-42). Life isn’t as complicated as we make it. Find what’s necessary for you, choose it, and commit yourself to it.
The third regret Ware heard was, “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.” Working together, expressing their feelings, and being joyous are the natural states of children. But we’ve created a culture in which adults too often stand alone and hide their feelings.
What did Jesus affirm as the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). Every one of our feelings is an opportunity to express our love for God. Why would you hold any of them back?
The fourth regret in Ware’s top-five list was, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Jesus’ last prayer for all who follow into the abundant life he lived was that “they may all be one” as he and God were one (John 17:21).
The abundant life God offers in Christ depends upon our being united with one another in perfect love. Choose to never lose touch with your friends. They’re among God’s most precious gifts to you.
Finally, Ware learned, the fifth most common regret of the dying was, “I wish I had let myself be happier.” Happiness is not a matter of circumstances; it’s a matter of choice. Happiness doesn’t simply happen to us; it happens because we choose to be happy. How much happiness is lost in concerns and worries about things we have no control over? “Every day is a gift now, you know,” one of Ware’s patients told her near the end. “Every day was always a gift, but it’s only now I have slowed down enough that I am truly seeing the huge amount of beauty each day offers to us. We can take so much for granted.”
“Therefore, do not worry about your life,” Jesus said, “what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear … Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? So do not worry about tomorrow. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:25-34). And so are the gifts the universe sends to us. There are thousands of ways to touch happiness.
During this Lent, don’t think first about what you’re going to give up. Think first about what life intends to do with you, and about what you will do to embrace God’s gift of more and better life than you ever dreamed of. Thomas Merton said, “If you want to identify me, ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” Write it down. Complete this simple sentence: “Before I die, I want to . . . .”
After Jesus was baptized and before he began his life of ministry, he faced a wilderness of choices about how he would live out his faith. In the choices he made he was tested and prepared for his life. So it was with the early church. The choices they would make brought them face to face with extraordinary difficulties. Yet those same choices also brought them into a depth and quality of life beyond compare. We make the same choices today, every day.
“The choice is always ours,” Aldous Huxley wrote in The Cicadas.
“Then let me choose
The longest art, the hard Promethean way
Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan
That inward fire, whose small precarious flame,
Kindled or quenched creates
The noble or ignoble [persons] we are,
The worlds we live in and the very fates,
Our bright or muddy star.”