Anticipating Deathbed Regrets
A man needs to constantly remind himself that his real job is his wife and children.
The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. — Harriet Beecher Stowe
Billy Graham has preached in person to more human beings, an estimated two hundred million, than anyone in history. Few public figures of the past century, even Churchill or Roosevelt, hold more respect. In fact, in the annual Gallup Poll of “America’s Most Admired Men,” the name of Billy Graham has appeared in the top ten a record forty-nine times, including a record forty-two consecutive years.
Would it surprise you, then, to know that the man who has held the world’s ear and counseled every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has regrets about his life? In his autobiography, Just as I Am, Mr. Graham confesses that while he took on the whole world, he lost something at home:
This is a difficult subject for me to write about, but over the years, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Team became my second family without my realizing it. Ruth says those of us who were off traveling missed the best part of our lives—enjoying the children as they grew. She is probably right. I was too busy preaching all over the world.
Only Ruth and the children can tell what those extended times of separation meant to them. For myself, as I look back, I now know that I came through those years much the poorer both psychologically and emotionally. I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop.
For decades, Nelson Mandela was the iconic leader of resistance for South African blacks under the system of race segregation known as apartheid, and behind his sacrifice, an entire people rallied for liberty. But in 1992, not long after he was released from twenty years behind bars on Robben Island, and before a horde of reporters in Johannesburg, Mandela grew surprisingly candid about his most profound loss. “It seems to be the destiny of freedom fighters to have unstable personal lives,” he said. “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.”
At the wedding of his daughter Zindzi, Mandela agonized afresh. “We watched our children growing without our guidance. When I did come out of prison, my children said, ‘We thought we had a father and one day he’d come back. But to our dismay, our father came back and he left us alone because he has now become the father of the nation.'”
The tormented father wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far too little of.”
A personal resolution
Those of us off the world stage live no less in the shadow of things undone: prime hours spent on the road or in the office, marriage to the “wrong” person, fitness and health gone to seed, money gone before the spending ended, children gone before we knew them.
Even in high school, I could see that while a person can live only a day at a time, life tallies and one day presents us with the sum of our actions. Clearly my father’s early death shaped my thoughts here. With that in mind, I began to notice when someone around me tried to reverse a harmful habit or lifestyle: the open-heart surgery survivor counting cholesterol, the newly divorced father leaving work early for restricted time with his kids. And it made sense to me, though I was only in high school, that if a young man were aware of adults’ most common regrets, he might try to avoid them.
Don’t think that I began right away. My father died at the start of my senior year of high school—not a natural point for a kid to begin preventive health measures. And for the next eight or ten years, I didn’t (other than switching from whole milk to skim). If something on a dish looked good, I ate it. Except for four years of college football, I coasted on nature’s gift to youth. Post-college, I took a few extra pounds in stride. Post-marriage, I made room for a few more. By age twenty-eight, the few-here-few-there increase on the scales was thirty pounds over my college placekicker weight.
The real kicker was my trip to see Dr. Kenneth Cooper at his famous clinic in Dallas. Dr. Cooper is the father of the modern aerobics movement. He knows a little about heart disease. After my body was measured, scanned, and analyzed, I had sufficient incentive to commit to a life of low-fat foods and regular exercise, routines I have kept, so far, for nearly two decades.
In my thirties, my deliberate attempt to reduce deathbed regrets expanded to include my family. By now I was a young man heading my own company, traveling too much, especially given the ages of my children. So at age thirty-eight, I resolved that by age forty, I would cut my business travel in half. To seal my resolve, I announced the plan to my wife.
This resolution proved a little tougher. My work was taking me around the world to people and events that, in many cases, were history-making. Client assignments had taken me to South Africa, Sudan, England, Scotland, Germany, Peru, Australia, The Netherlands, Bosnia, India, and all across the U.S. But while that schedule impressed many people, my children were not among them. Moreover, if my status with Delta Airlines threatened my status at home, I knew what had to give.
So in the coming months, I began to say no to certain clients and new business opportunities. And it got easier. And the business survived. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, while my travel may not have downsized a full 50 percent, it did shrink dramatically—and I considerably increased ordinary, routine, normal-living time with my wife and children.
Every day is gone forever
At this point you may be thinking that few employees can choose to decline travel assignments, and you would be right. But the fact remains that too many entrepreneurs and executives can trim their schedules and they choose not to. I spoke once to a young, Important Man who traveled widely to Important Places but could not remember what grade in school his daughter was enrolled in.
Billy Graham confessed, “Every day I was absent from my family is gone forever. Although much of that travel was necessary, some of it was not.”
Something about the American work schedule is not outright anti-family but perilously close to being un-family—we work as if our spouse and children are what we do on those few occasions when professional pursuits subside.
Meanwhile, a world-renowned achiever regrets every day absent from family is gone forever. Ultimately, we are what we do every day. What defines us is not one large good intention to be a good person, or parent—it’s a hundred thousand ongoing choices of every size that arise when we’re tired, satisfied, distracted, full of ourselves, threatened, happy, reactionary, sentimental, hurried, bored …
We’re not talking about New Year’s resolutions here; we’re talking about every person’s option, sooner or later, to live deliberately. Every week, it seems, I hear another personal story of a marriage too early or to the “wrong” person, personal bankruptcy, a destructive affair, blinding stress, tobacco-related lung cancer or emphysema, a child lost to alcohol or drug abuse, obesity complications … as many variations as there are people with prime years to waste.
The ticking clock intimidates us, even frightens us; but while time is unforgiving, God is not. What lies behind us is gone and consequences are inevitable; but God is in the business of redemption and we can still give him the years we have. Perhaps pride is the biggest hurdle because busyness holds some sense of self-importance.
Adapted from The Little Red Book of Wisdom by Mark DeMoss. Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tenn. Copyright © 2006 by Mark DeMoss. Used with permission.