As anyone who knows me or who is familiar with this blog likely knows, suffering and death are preoccupations of mine. And, so, when I saw on Facebook this morning an article—one I think I’ve seen before—on The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, I shared it without looking at it again—something I do far too often, i.e., share without really looking, simply based on the headline and blurb. A friend and former colleague, Joshua Miller, commented by sharing his piece, The Fetishizing of the Dying, in which he calls out Ware on a number of points. I’m grateful that he did.
After reflecting on her experience in palliative care for the dying, Ware enumerate these five regrets as most typical:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
These are judgments that I find myself easily able to imagine having. However, like Miller, I take issue with certain aspects of these regrets, particularly the idea that they might be action guiding for our own lives. Again, I’m thankful to Miller for calling me out on the post. Miller’s first criticism of it is:
Why should we credit someone’s last thoughts over the ones that guided them throughout life? A regret is just an act of hypocrisy, a wish to have had our cake and eaten it, too. Because we don’t really know what regrets we would have had in the counterfactual, regret is largely a fantasy of another, unknown life, more desirable because it is foreign, its pleasures more easily imagined than its pains. There’s no particularly good reason to believe we are wiser when faced with imminent death, chronic pain, and possibly clouded by drugs.
There are a number of related points that we might unpack from the above. However, I want to focus on the very first line, “Why should we credit someone’s last thoughts over the ones that guided them throughout life?” for it connects up with something that I’ve been thinking about on occasion, but with increasing frequency. What is above labeled a regret is a more specific instance of what I (and perhaps others; I haven’t looked) call “hindsight judgments.” Judgments made after the fact, usually, though not necessarily, after some years have passed. Another important characteristic of them is that they involve an assessment of the value, appropriateness, or perhaps rightness of fit, of some past belief, value, desire, action, or circumstance. Often enough it concerns our own lives, but it may concern others’. So, for example, I look back at my teenage attraction to Ayn Rand and what I would now label “radical individualism” and I cringe, judging myself as naïve, inexperienced, and not well-enough-read. But I also might judge something similar of another, for example, my brother’s finding humorous, buying, and wearing in early college a shirt that read, “Official Fort Lauderdale Bikini Inspector,” while I simultaneously facepalm my own coveting of it as his younger brother.
The very idea of hindsight is value laden, as can be seen in the truism, “Hindsight is 20/20.” This is, I take it, one of the central things that Miller is calling out. The assumption seems to be that in the time since the original experience/happening, one has learned much more and one is thus in a better epistemic position to judge the state of affairs in question. This may well be true in some cases. For example, I cannot help but think that my earlier attraction to Ayn Rand’s radical individualism was due to my ignorance and lack of understanding, for example, of the radical interconnectedness and interdependence of everything.
By contrast, there are cases where it may not be so clear that we are right to privilege our hindsight judgments. For example, one of the main contexts for my thinking about the soundness of hindsight judgments concerns the suicide of my ex-wife, Jennie. She and I were close after our divorce, as close as you can be living in different states and when one party, Jennie, is ill and not always able or desiring to talk/write. Not too much detail is needed here, but before she killed herself, she asked me in desperation to move from DC to Texas to save her. This I refused; and it ended in her suicide almost two months later. I struggle with various forms of guilt and regret in regard to those two months and our broader relationship. But what I need to remember is that when we were together, and when she was approaching the time of her suicide, I was operating with a particular set of beliefs, values, and desires, as was she. In hindsight, I recognize that some of those beliefs were false, and some of the values and desires were selfish. But to what extent does that invalidate or impugn my decisions and actions then? We are now over our heads (or I am) in the deep waters of the complexities of agency. My decisions and actions then, like the beliefs, values, and desires that led to them, were in part the result of the time Jennie and I were together, all that was done, said, etc.; they were in part the result of her past actions; and they were in part the result of the unknowable, if not occasionally foreseeable, future. But in the turbid depths (so many depths) of grief, it is all-too-easy to make the hindsight judgment that I was/am a terrible person, that I should have done things differently. And maybe in some instances I should have; however, this kind of hindsight judgments does nothing but obfuscate the complexities of agency and the details of the past. Something similar can be said, as Miller does, about one’s position in regard to death bed hindsight judgments.
Importantly, the trouble with hindsight judgments is connected to another problem. It seems people often have the intuition that if they forget about some past experience, or, more importantly, if when they die they cease to exist, then those past experiences, or their whole life, become meaningless. Perhaps the underlying assumption of such judgments is that “This part of my life, or life in general, is only meaningful if it is taken by someone to be meaningful. Right now, I take it as meaningful, but one day I will be no more. Thus, when I am gone, it will all be without meaning.” It is little consolation that others might carry on the “taking as meaningful,” since, for one, they are themselves mortal, and given enough time, my life will fade from the collective memory, and for another, not everyone is privy to what I have experienced, what I have found to be meaningful.
I take it that Simone de Beauvior has something like this in mind in the following:
Simone de Beauvoir…, growing old, finished the third volume of her memoirs, Force of Circumstance, with a review of the life she had so passionately affirmed: “Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing…. If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place, I can still see the hedge of hazel trees flurried by the wind and the promises with which I fed my beating heart while I stood gazing at the gold-mine at my feet: a whole life to live. The promises have all been kept. And yet, turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped.” (p693, From Hans Küng, Does God Exist?)
When she writes, “The promises have all been kept. And yet, turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped” I read this as saying that, on the one hand, she kept all of her promises to her younger self, i.e., she accomplished much, yet, on the other hand, despite the keeping of those promises nothing of any lasting significance occurred. Thus, in hindsight, she can see how much her younger self was gypped, was naïve in her hopes and dreams. But whether I am right in my reading de Beauvoir in this way, the point remains that some people, at least, do reason in the way described above to the conclusion that their lives will have no meaning when they are gone, and, thus, in some sense, they are already meaningless.
A problem I see with this line of reasoning, and one that can be directly applied to the hindsight judgments, is that it misunderstands the phenomenology and the ontology of meaningfulness. That is, while one important question is: Am I correct in my value judgments? Another, more primary question is: Do I experience my life, in some part or in whole, as meaningful on the whole? Ideally, I would be able to truthfully and knowingly answer both question in the affirmative. However, I must admit that I am more concerned about experiencing my life as meaningful than I am in accurately assessing whether that judgment is correct. Please do not misunderstand. I seek an authentically meaningful existence. However, if given the choice between two lives—a) A life I experience as meaningful though I may be wrong that it is and b) A life I do not experience as meaningful and I know that it is not—I would choose a). And that is one reason I will focus now on the question of experiencing one’s life as meaningful, over the question of whether I am correct to judge the experiences as meaningful.
Applying this to the issue of hindsight judgments, let’s go back to my earlier example with the Fort Lauderdale Bikini Inspector t-shirt: if I judge now that I don’t find it funny and that I was a little ridiculous/absurd to think so then, that does not, and cannot, change the fact that when I was younger I experienced it as funny and desirable. Further, my having done so does not depend on my doing so, or not doing so, now. Similarly, if I experience my years of avoiding people and social situations as meaningful, since I spent that time reading, thinking, and writing about things that moved me, that will not, and cannot, change if on my deathbed I suddenly think about all the other things I could have been doing, like being more social, and judge that I should have been more social, that that would have been truly meaningful.
At this point, it is tempting to default to the first question above, “Am I right in my value judgments?” and thereby distance myself from the second one, “Do/did I experience/judge something as/to be meaningful?” And perhaps there are contexts in which that shift is warranted—I do, after all, think that we can be mistaken in our judgments of value, and even our self-assessments of our happiness (Cf. Daniel Haybron’s work on happiness in which he challenges the Cartesian assumption that we know our own minds/lives best—hell, if I recall, Aristotle, too, makes claims about the epistemic necessity of friends in order for us to know ourselves truly). However, I do not think the default assumption should be that that shift should always occur. That is, we should not uncritically assume our hindsight judgments to be more accurate than our original experiences/judgments, and thereby privilege our hindsight judgments. Much more should be said to elaborate on these points and, perhaps, indicate defeasible criteria we might use to help adjudicate when we are warranted in privileging hindsight judgments and when not.