He shuffled in, trying to look inconspicuous. But I noticed him straightaway. It was my job after all, to be observant, for I was the exam invigilator. And he, in his worn yellow tee, stood out from the mostly “white uniform” crowd.
The gentleman looked in his 50s. The balding patch on his head was obvious, a stark contrast against the youthful exuberance in the school hall. All of them, students and private candidates, were here to take the national ‘O’ level exams.
He sat down at his designated chair, and drew out a small red plastic bag, the kind available at wet markets. He took out his stationery and placed them on the table carefully, shifting them about till he seemed satisfied.
He then looked at the wall clock and still squinting hard, took his reading glasses up to see the time again. He looked ready, and even eager, to start the exam, oblivious to the curious stares directed his way.
In Singapore, the secondary school students take the ‘O’s when they are about 16. Granted that there are always late ones, for various reasons. But I was still surprised to see the old gentleman.
Academic grades do matter, especially in Singapore. Tuition is big business, as parents spend good money to push their kids for better results, viewing it as a stepping stone for a better life. But at his senior age, I wonder why the old fellow was still trying at this.
It was unlikely he needed the certification to get a better job. After all, even with ‘O’ levels, it would be difficult to compete with younger people armed with better qualifications. So why was he doing it? An unfulfilled dream perhaps?
In a book titled “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware who cared for patients in the last 3 months of their lives, writes of the clarity of vision people gain at the end, and how we might learn from this wisdom. And these are the 5 she revealed:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
I have started writing my personal bucket list. I use an app to track, and when inspired by something I see or hear, I will record another wish in my list. And the list seems to be getting longer. It makes me wonder if I am too ambitious or too caught up in life, to honour my dreams.
I exercise regularly and the doc gave me a clean bill recently for the last health check. But time seem to fly whenever I look back. It is already the end of this year. I am getting older each minute and know that my health will deteriorate with age. I pray that before I kick the bucket, my list will be short.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
Fortunately or not, I have never been a fan of working too hard. But still, I was conscientious. I had contributed the hours and ran the treadmill, spending years at a career for the money. I had missed important moments in life, when I should have been present. I am still having regrets at some of the misses.
The government likes to emphasize that human capital is the most critical resource in this country. We are encouraged to study well, work hard, pay our taxes and procreate our genes. There are many incentives: bursaries for good results, scholarships for the super bright, housing allowances to get married, tax rebates for having more kids, and many more.
No wonder Singaporeans work so hard. In fact, in a dated report by International Labour Organisation, Singaporeans put in the longest hours at work. I couldn’t find the latest figures, but I am sure nothing much has changed. This is a statistic that maybe, we shouldn’t be so proud of.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
To my loved ones and friends, I wished I had said sorry more often. Many times, because of “face” or a lousy temper, I have not. And that had compromised relationships.
I also wished I had been braver to express my feelings, instead of worrying about hurting other people. And in the end, because of my silence, I end up hurting everyone.
“Sorry, my love. It is my fault, please forgive me.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
A close friend mentioned recently that as we get older, it is harder to have good friends. Maybe it is because everyone is caught up with living. Or just becoming more self centered.
When we were young, it was easier to make friends. Sometimes, a smile was all it took, and soon we will be playing together. As we got older, many chose their friends based on “benefits”. It is a “what use are you to me” type of relationship. Is this because of survival in the workplace? Is this called networking? Or is this part of growing older and becoming more selfish.
I had lost many good friends, mostly due to my own faults. Sometimes I still miss the easy camaraderie, but the moment has passed and it is no longer the same. Sadly, we have moved on.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
I must laugh more often. I think I used to laugh more when younger. It is harder to do so now, maybe because I have gotten more indifferent. And more concerned about looking silly.
Not too long ago, I asked a class of students what they wanted to do in life. There were many answers of wanting to be doctors, pilots, soccer players etc. But the best answer I got was simply, “I wanted to be happy”.
Indeed, I do want to be more happy too, and silly, and laugh more at myself for being silly.
At the end, the old gentleman was still scribbling furiously, even after the time was up, and everyone was told to put down their pens. But he wrote on, trying to fill up the last few lines, before I have to stop him.
Is he trying to write more because he didn’t write enough in his younger days? Is he here taking the exams because he didn’t work harder when he was a school student?
I am reminded of the Chinese saying: “少壮不努力，老大徒伤悲”. What it means is that if one does not work hard when younger, there will be regrets in old age.
Looking at the old man leaving the hall, in my heart, I wished him well. I admire his resolve. Unknowingly to him, in the hours that he was here, he has inspired me to live better without regrets.
I know that the greatest wealth in life is not financial riches. After all, there were no mention of more money, more sex or more work by the dying.
Although this is a financial blog, and I should write more about money, I am clear that true wealth is more than dollars and cents. Relationships, dreams and health matter more.
Before you leave, think: What’s your regrets so far, and what will you set out to achieve or change before you die?
And if you do so, I will have added to your wealth already.