I don’t believe I am supposed to forget. In my mid-20s, bright-eyed and excited about my role as a budding counselor, I walked into a hospital room where I witnessed for the first time an elderly man lying on his deathbed. His time was near, yet he remained lucid.
Although strangers to one another, he took my hand and began to talk. There was little time for chit chat. He looked deeply into my eyes, his eyes filled with tears, and then he spoke words that I have never forgotten, “In all my life, I never did what I wanted to do.” Less than two hours later, he died.
I was shaken, unable to sleep that night. What bothered me most was not that he had died, but that this man had spent his life, the entirety of his life, failing to do what he really wanted to do. His time was over. There would be no other chances. When life is spent, it is spent.
For me, his words served as a profound spiritual experience. I decided, then and there, that regardless of what I did with my life, it would be an expression of who I am. Certainly, I vowed never to be that man, lying on my deathbed, dying in despair.
The progression of life leads individuals in one of two directions — either toward integrity or despair.
Despair is the underlying feeling that life was not what you wanted it to be. As people reach the final quarter of their lives, if despair has been the prevalent direction of their lives, they will become increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied. We even have terms for their condition — grumpy old men, or an old nag. These derogatory terms reflect the overriding dissatisfaction many elderly display with the overall life experience.
Despair tends to make individuals desperate during the final phase of life. In vain attempts to seize something, anything out of the life experience, individuals become consumed with attempts to make their lives meaningful. They may turn to the accumulation of material goods, attempts to control everything around them, or resort to pity parties hoping to focus attention on themselves. Such maneuvers are desperate attempts to distract the individuals from either acknowledging or feeling the despair. Sadly, such attempts only fuel the feelings of despair as the grumpy old man or old nag becomes increasingly isolated. Few people want to be around such negative energy.
Integrity is the underlying feeling that life was, for the most part, what you wanted it to be. During the final phase of life, these people move toward integrity as they feel increasing satisfaction with the overall life experience.
Such individuals have not lived a perfect life. Perfection does not lead to integrity. Rather, these individuals have lived the lives they truly wanted to live and when mistakes were made, they stood ready and willing to assume responsibility for the transgression and then in the process of time, demonstrated an intense desire to learn from the experience.
Such individuals display a wisdom that comes only from a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the totality of life experiences. They are invaluable resources as they can teach others not nearly so practiced in living, the fine art of living well. Also, because of their overall satisfaction with the life experience, they are a pleasure to be around. The positive energy they freely give away is energizing to those in their presence.
All of us will eventually reach our deathbeds. Whether we reach that moment in our life with integrity or despair is up to us.