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To Live Without Regrets



The idea of a “life review” process that takes place upon our death has found its way from spiritual traditions into popular culture, through movies like “Defending Your Life” and “Heart and Souls.” Sometimes the protagonist is offered the opportunity to go back into the human world to mend the harms they caused and correct the things they wish they had done differently. In movies it’s often a humorous portrayal, but the idea is a serious one.


I don’t believe in a judgmental deity waiting to mete out punishment or reward, but I do believe that we reflect on and learn from our experience after we leave this life. When the time comes for your life review, how will you feel about what you see? What will bring you the most satisfaction, and what (if anything) will you wish you could amend?


Perhaps a better question is what do you want to see, to remember, to celebrate when your time comes? How do you need to live now in order for that to become the "movie" of your life review?


Living with chronic illness, I have several times been close to death. It became a helpful instrument of discernment, a measure by which I was guided on my path. I asked, “If I die without doing _______, would I regret it?” (My regrets have always been more about things I didn’t do than things I did.) This clarifying question has been my compass in times of decision, especially regarding profession and purpose.


Some years ago, I was part of a weekend-long gathering with a circle of wise and beautiful souls including Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Freedom Singer, scholar, activist, and founder of the vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. I will always remember her saying that she wanted to live so fully, to give everything that is in her to give, so that when she dies the only thing left will be an empty husk. When I heard that, something within me leapt to attention. It’s a high bar, but I want to live that way, too. Perhaps it resonates with you as well? Like a touchstone we can keep in our pocket to call us back to what's important. (Remember, the most urgent thing before us is not always the most important.)


One of the gifts of being in one’s 60s, where I find myself now, is the feeling of connection to generations. Our children (by birth or otherwise) are full adults, they have children, and maybe even grandchildren -- most of them known and dear. There is still a generation older than we are who remain on the planet as our elders. And there are generations we have known and loved who are now ancestors. The relationships are visceral, proximate. I have physically touched these beloveds, two or even three generations in either direction, and they offer a bridge to those long before and yet to come. It’s a tangible relationship across time, a weaving into life in a way that is intimate and precious.


When Zulu sangoma (traditional healer and shaman) Baba Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa said, “We must think like grandmothers,” I expect this is part of it. [1] The unconditional love, the patience and selflessness of grandmothers, yes, but also our primary connection to so many generations of beings. And the wisdom that comes with having lived for more than a while.


You don’t have to be any particular age or gender to think like a grandmother. I’ve known some younger folks, and some masculine-gendered folks who carry the grandmother spirit. And I’ve known some biological grandmothers who don’t. If we take Baba Mutwa’s counsel and embrace this as spiritual practice, how does thinking like grandmothers invite us to live? I like to imagine the world that would create -- one shaped by wisdom, that honors the Earth and all living beings. One that is steeped in that kind of fierce love that doesn’t put up with a bunch of mess. One that calls everyone up to the full expression of their genius.


Inhabiting that grandmother spirit seems like a good way to live into Dr. Bernice’s invitation to give all that is within us to give, and have no regrets when it is time for the movie of our life review.


** [1] Credo Mutwa, “A Message for the World,” interview by Global Oneness Project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vv3R6hddPfI& This post is an excerpt from my book-in-progress.

Photo of an empty husk by La_Corivo on iStock.

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