When my husband was 6 he moved with his family from New York City to suburban Rhode Island. It was the 1950s. In New York, little boys wore shorts. Well, it turns out that when he went outside for the first time in his new neighborhood in Rhode Island that August wearing shorts, he was greeted with this: “What are you, queer?” [This is not a picture of my husband!]
Not that the other 6 to 8 year olds had the slightest idea what “queer” was. It was just a word to indicate a terrible transgression. To wear shorts—to even be the kind of person who would think of wearing shorts—was to desire social death. He never wore shorts in Rhode Island again. It turns out they were okay in his next stop, Connecticut.
And so this is the way we end up—so many of us—dying two deaths. Here’s this person put it:
The first death, the death of the body, is inescapable. (Sorry if this is news to you!) The second death is, or at least should be, completely unnecessary.
You know the life you want to live. You know what makes you happy. You know what makes you feel more like you. Despite reports you may have heard, we are not strangers to our true selves. They talk to us all the time, if only we’d listen. Our true selves aren’t buried or elusive. We’re just not good friends to them.
It's fear of convention, fear of what friends and family might say, fear of inconvenience, fear of uncertainty, fear of disappointing people...all this that makes us say no to how we want to live, to what makes us happy, to what makes us feel like our true selves.
Here’s this simple tough fact that sets us up for the two deaths that the hospital chaplain was talking about. Once you have a life going—a career, a job, a family, a mortgage, a set of friends—you're in a kind of trap. Maybe a soft, friendly, loving trap, but a trap nonetheless. A trap because all the forces are in places for nothing to change unless it absolutely has to, because for anything big to change, that would be a big freakin’ deal. So much work and disruption that it gives you a headache to even think about.
So we set ourselves up for the second death.
As a therapist I too have talked to a lot of people about their regrets. They really aren’t so much about the risks they didn’t take—not in any abstract sense that risk taking per se was all so important. The regrets weren’t about bucket list items that never got checked off. They might say, “I wish I’d seen Paris,” but they’re not usually torn up about it.
No, the regrets are about the other self—not hidden but always waiting in the wings—who wanted to write poetry or climb mountains or plant gardens or do something big with social action.
And whether we just don’t get around to it or feel terrified of doing it or anything in between, you always have to ask,
Is the cost of living the life you really want to live (a cost that exists mostly in our fears and our imagination) going to be more than the end-of-life cost you know you’ll pay for not having done it?
You know the answer to this as well as I do.