I keep having this idea, not that I think it’s true, that when you die you appear in a talk show studio, and everyone is clapping. A host shakes your hand and asks you to sit down, and the both of you go over how you think you did.
On a large screen, they play a long montage containing some of the more significant moments in your life. You and the host, along with the audience, look on as you make pivotal choices, overcome dilemmas, and meet the people who would become your friends and partners.
The film includes a lot of personality-defining moments, such as when you made the choice to embrace what became your art or your calling, if you had one, or when you took on a long-term responsibility that became a part of who you were. You also get to see, for only the second time, the moments in which your most important relationships went from superficial to true. Everyone in the studio is moved.
The members of the audience have seen many episodes of this show, and were once on it themselves. The overall tone of the production is quite pleasant and earnest. Clearly everyone is happy for you, celebrating your life rather than judging it, and probably remembering similar moments from their own reel.
The montage also covers things you missed—many of of the experiences and relationships that didn’t happen, but could have, if you had accepted or extended a particular invitation, if you had made a particular effort at small talk instead of sinking into another painful silence, if you had bought that piano after all, if you had attended the indoor climbing center’s open house instead of telling yourself you’d go next year.
Of all the missed possibilities, the missed human connections stand out above the other kinds—the missed career and travel opportunities, cultural experiences, even the creative achievements—because by the end of your life the only thing that seemed relevant was the people you loved, or ended up loving. When you died all the value in your world resided there, in the simple and all-important fact that you really knew other people and other people really knew you.
And this part lasts forever, because, as you learn quickly, you missed many more connections than you made. Maybe fifty or a hundred times more. In fact, many times a wonderful connection with another person was just one simple action away from you, but you pulled back.
Such an incredible wealth of human connection—the greatest part of life, you know now—hinged on a phone call you didn’t bother with, a conversation you shut down, or an apology you’d make in an instant if they sent you back now. There was so much available to you, and it was so much closer than it seemed at the time.
In most of these moments, you pulled away from a budding connection because you wanted to protect yourself from some mildly uncomfortable moment—that you might be bored at an acquaintance’s party and have to excuse yourself early, that a conversation you start might be difficult to escape from, that your act of openness might be taken advantage of. So you stayed home, said no, made excuses, and avoided many conversations. This small amount of uneasiness you avoided, you realize now, cost you many friendships as deep and rich as the best ones you did manage to have.
But you’re not going back, and there’s nothing left to cling to, and nothing left to protect yourself from. So the feeling you get watching all these missed connections isn’t regret, it’s abundance. It seems really wonderful that a human life could have contained fifty undeveloped relationships for every one that was allowed to thrive, given how rich and fulfilling some of those connections were. You’re happy to see that those chances were there, even though you didn’t quite recognize them in time to take advantage.
This all rests fine with you, knowing that you don’t need any more life advantages, because you’re done with the whole thing. Your lifelong wish of being safe from everything you fear has been granted. For the first time there is truly nothing to worry about.
It was all tradeoffs anyway. One thing you didn’t do allowed for something else to happen. But you can’t deny that there is a pattern in these tradeoffs: you frequently chose another dose of the predictable and comfortable over developing a relationship with another person.
After your segment finishes, new guests come on the show and you see the same thing in most of their clips. There are a few people who apparently had no reservations about being open and proactive towards others, and a few people whose reticence clearly helped them get by. But for the most part, you see people who really valued friendship and connection—more than anything else, they would say now—but let it pass them by again and again, because of some comfort-related concern that seemed more important at the time. It is the perfect example of John Lennon’s “making other plans” remark.
Happily, a little bit of this kind of wealth goes a long way. Even one great friendship is enough to make a person feel blessed that life went the way it did. So you don’t feel bad for the new guests. But it is endlessly fascinating to watch people learn that there was so much more out there, just a little bit beyond what felt perfectly safe.