Living a Life with No Regrets: How Two Weeks in South Africa Changed My Life

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“Intertwined between the days and nights of joyous music and my offbeat dance moves were intense and silent lessons about the beauty of being present.”

From a young age, I’ve always had an acute understanding of mortality, that life could be snatched away at any moment. This oversized childhood fear was birthed from my family’s reality. By the age of 13, my family would bury my grandfather, my vibrant 40 something-year-old aunt from cancer, my uncle, and two years later his son (my first cousin)--both from commercial fishing accidents.

Death seems to be the one thing we can all relate to, the inevitable cycle of life. The only difference lies in one’s chosen method of moving forward after tragedy. For me, their untimely deaths served as a quiet, but constant reminder to really live, and live with no regrets. So from a very young age, as much as a child could, I made an unconscious commitment to myself to attempt a regret-free life, in a sense honoring what my relatives didn’t get to finish doing —which was living.

And then I turned 35. 

My twenties were no cakewalk, but the low bank account balance and difficulties up the career ladder seemed more like a right of passage to greater things than a permanent reality.

South Africa encapsulates everything that is life: beauty, growth, and the journey to overcome tragedy.

But at 35, I assumed life would have settled, thinking my climb to the top of the mountain would have resulted in a steady walk across an even plain. Instead it was the opposite: there were peaks and dramatic valleys. Basically, it was normal everyday life as a member of the human race.

But, I was really feeling the turbulence. I had a relatively unexpected job change from a job I loved, a shoulder surgery that prohibited me from being as active as I once was, a parent going through cancer treatment, the pressures of being single at 35 and the constant stream of questions around kids and marriage, paired with a barrage of advertisements for fertility treatments on my Pandora music app. It was comedy at its best, society’s not-so-subtle reminders of the ticking of my biological clock.

Basically life was happening to me. I wasn’t special or unique, I know these are things we all go through, but boy was I feeling it. The clock was ticking and I was just watching the arms move. My promise of living with no regret was faltering. I was literally questioning every decision I had ever made that had delivered me to my current state of existence.

Then one day my best friend told me about this program called Unsettled. Unsettled offers two-week and month-long co-working retreats at various locations across the world. My friend’s boss had done it shortly after leaving her job and she raved about the experience.

I mulled over the idea for a few months, and after a few tumultuous weeks at work, I decided to pull the trigger. I signed up for two weeks in Cape Town, South Africa.

I had just started at my new job and didn’t have enough vacation leave for the trip, but something told me to just do it, and so I got permission from my boss, took a negative leave balance and did it. It wasn’t the most responsible decision, but it was daring and regret-free living at its best.

I was hoping to get the answers to a few major life questions, but I really didn’t know what else to expect.

To date, it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.

The trip was a master class in life, set to the backdrop of a country with astounding beauty, but with a terribly complicated history. South Africa encapsulates everything that is life: beauty, growth and the journey to overcome tragedy.

The first day I met the roughly 20 other participants with a range of jobs from all over the world: Romania, Ireland, Lebanon, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, China, Dubai, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, Estonia, Denmark, and the U.S.

Our group was split between three different houses in Camps Bay; a stunningly gorgeous ocean front area of Cape Town hugged by the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range and Atlantic Ocean. It was the most beautiful site I’ve ever seen.

The first day we set our agenda which was sprinkled with voluntary group activities such as day trip to a few vineyards, a beach with penguins, family dinner nights, and a trip to a township on the periphery of the city. All the group activities had an element of learning – whether it was about South Africa’s history, the economic disparities that exist in the county, or simply about the shared human condition of living.

In between doing some work, the schedule was loose enough that we had time to do and explore anything we wanted.

As a group, we decided on a few different life-learning sessions taught by participants in our group and our experience leader. There was a course in manifesting miracles, which included how daily affirmations can manifest your goals into reality; there was another course about the seven-year life cycle and business and financial planning; and lastly, a course on your true north which discussed what you were were destined to do.

Because our group was composed of seasoned professionals from a variety of fields, we could also meet one-on-one with each other to get help on whatever each other’s specific specialty was. For example, one of the participants worked in digital media, so in the midst of eating pizza and drinking wine, she helped me refine a brand I want to create - Tall Hungry Girl, which is the website you’re reading this article on.  

During our Thanksgiving dinner, one of the participants, a marketing executive for a large luxury hotel chain, gave shockingly accurate palm readings in the kitchen.

Our family dinner nights were filled with songs and informal dance lessons from some of the participants’ respective countries.

I learned how to surf and sprained my ankle, I challenged my fear of heights and daringly scaled the side of a mountain; I went kayaking in the ocean and puked overboard; I went on a walking history tour of Cape Town hosted by a man who had been to prison 11 times, survived apartheid and was doing amazing things for the community, including helping the homeless with job training and teaching tourists, like myself about South Africa’s history. Unknowingly, but perhaps intentionally, inspiring people like me to figure out more ways to give back to my community.

On the last day, I met with our experience leader who helped me develop and refine a business plan.

Intertwined between the days and nights of joyous music and my offbeat dance moves, were intense and silent lessons about the beauty of being present. In so much of my life I’m thinking about what’s for dinner, the debate of whether to go to the gym, my weekend plans and what I want my job to eventually be. However, for two weeks I was able to live presently amongst a diverse group of people from all over the world.

Ultimately, my biggest lesson was something I didn’t necessarily expect. While I was compiling my community column about how credit unions are giving back in their community, I had an ah ha moment. I went on this trip wondering how life was impacting me. However, I left with concrete ideas of how I would impact the world. To pull a quote from John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” It was also a self-realization that I’m exactly where I need to be.

So my new goal will be to execute my business plan (this website) and better contribute to this world. This will serve as an anchor to secure me during the inevitably strong tides of this thing we call life. And most of all, I will live—presently and with no regrets. Cheers to you living your life with no regrets and Happy New Year!