"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Living Life To The Full

Larry Hagman died last week, and although I never watched Dallas I knew that it was an American cultural icon as popular abroad as it was in the United States.  Enough of the cachet of the program must have filtered through my indifference, because on my first trip to Dallas a few years ago, I was expecting something glitzy, oversized, bigger-than-life, and dramatic.  Of course I got none of that – only a big, hot High Mass wedding and a country club reception – but I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed.  If even for a moment we want things to be as we imagine them.

In a very funny piece in the Guardian (11.15.12), Carole Cadwalladr has written about regrets – we all have them, but Larry Hagman apparently did not, for his family released a statement saying he had “lived life to the full”.  Although the family provided no specifics, Cadwalladr fills in the blanks:

Four bottles of champagne a day, several experiences on LSD in which he said he could read people's minds and felt the living breath of the universe. And a habit of popping down to the shops wearing a gorilla suit.

As one might imagine, all this had its consequences:

True, the four-bottles-a-day routine led to a diagnosis of cirrhosis and a subsequent liver transplant, but even that doesn't seem to have unduly held him back. He told a journalist that after his death, he wanted his remains to be "spread over a field and have marijuana and wheat planted and to harvest it in a couple of years and then have a big marijuana cake". It would be enough, he hoped, for 200-300 people to "eat a little of Larry".

This isn’t quite so wacky.  Ted Williams had himself frozen until a cure for what ailed him could be found; and hundreds of Hollywood stars have had their ashes strewn in unusual places.  Jill Ireland, Charles Bronson’s late wife had her ashes made into a walking stick for him; and Joan Rivers scattered some of her husband’s ashes on the Late Show with David Letterman.

All of which prompted Cadwalladr to reflect on the subject of human regret.  Most of us, unlike Larry Hagman, regret something:

a survey carried out by the British Heart Foundation into the nation's regrets and unfulfilled desires. Nobody, sadly, said that they regretted not spending enough time wearing a gorilla suit taking LSD.

Instead, the regrets varied from the mundane (not having travelled more) to the delusional: 7% of men believe they could have been professional sportsmen if only they'd trained harder…And the 11% who "regret not sleeping with more women".

Seven percent of the 25 million men in Britain, calculates Cadwalladr is nearly two million, all of whom opine that they could have been David Beckham if they only had tried harder.  I am surprised that only 11 percent of men regret not sleeping with women.  Given the fact that men think about sex all day, every day, usually about women other than their wives, one would think that the regret levels would be higher.

In any case further research has found that regrets come only at a stage in life when we can do something about it:

What emerged [from the primate study] was that apes suffer a similar lull in happiness in their middle-age years as humans. Study after study has shown that we're happy when we're young, happy when we're old and pathetic, moping wrecks when we're middle-aged, convinced that David Beckham is living the life we should have had.

Perhaps that middle-aged regrets are an evolutionary mechanism which if caught early enough will motivate us to bigger and better things in life. Or, says Cadwalladr:

Regret makes us smarter. More human. More understanding of human frailty. With a greater insight into the role that luck plays in all our lives.

Regret in this nostalgic, reminiscent sense is very different from guilty regret.  “I really wish I had not left that incriminating email on the screen”; or “I should never have had that extra gin fizz”.  It is different from frustrated regret – “I should have spoken up…done him in…humiliated the little wanker….”; and it is nothing like the acid reflux-producing regret at not having made the right career moves and getting passed over; or not disciplining an errant child and having to bail him out of jail.  No, nostalgic regret is remembering for 40 years the girl on a park bench who looked at you through the March mist, alone and interested, in the most romantic of scenes, and then remembering that you did nothing. 

Having no regrets is what we all want.  Living life to its fullest is the only way to face the end with any kind of equanimity.  I have never understood people who, of sound mind and body, kick back and do little in their retirement years.  However many years I might have remaining to me, they will be filled to the brim with new ideas, new activities, new challenges.  I have had few regrets in my life (other than not owning a Ferrari) and do not want to start creating them now.  Maybe I should re-write my will and add the proviso that my ashes should be scattered to the 200 MPH winds whistling past a screaming Testarossa.

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