Let’s start by asking that old hypothetical: If you knew you only had a week/day/year to live, how would you spend it?
Somewhere in the middle of my third cancer adventure, a friend of mine, a physician who works in eldercare, asked how I handled knowing I might die. He wasn’t asking so he could compare my answer to those of the elderly people he worked with. He saw it as a chance for me to open a open a window into a mystery few of us encounter in the supposed mid-point of life.
And I thought, “Shit, if he doesn’t know, who would?” Really, it’s pretty discouraging. Here’s someone who works all the time with people who know they’re close to the end of their lives, and even he wonders how to get through this stuff.
I gave him some kind of vague answer preceded with “I’m not sure. Maybe it’s ....”
His question got me thinking. If there’s a chance I might die soon, what helps give hope and meaning to my life?
Shortly after, I came up with at least a preliminary answer. To get through the uncertainty, I had to aim for two things:
1) Living fully and joyfully in the present; and
2) Living for something beyond myself.
This answer isn’t necessarily so revolutionary or profound but it does come out of some heavy and gut-wrenching reading of books about people facing the end of their life, like “When Breath Becomes Air” and “Stations of the Heart” and “Being Mortal.”
A year or later, I still believe those two elements are foundational. But that answer also gets muddied by the grittiness of reality.
As chemo began last fall, I knew life beyond would be enormously challenging. The question of how to create a meaningful life was upstaged by a more urgent one: How will I get through the emotional disorientation of the first months after chemo? The first year? Beyond?
Soon after, I came across a YouTube interview of the existential psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His theory, called Logotherapy, is based on the concept that we find meaning by looking toward a future goal, not by looking behind us to work out problems that originated in our past.
In his book “Man’s Search For Meaning” he writes, “It is a peculiarity of (each person) that (they) can only survive by looking to the future… And this is (their) salvation in the most difficult moments of (their) existence, although (they) sometimes have to force (their) mind to the task.”
Partially out of the discovery of Frankl, partly out of pure survival instinct, I found myself setting some intimidating goals:
begin work on a book about finding hope and meaning after cancer;
start this blog;
create a film, which in turn led to
hopefully use the film to promote the local nonprofit Cancer Can’t and
raise support for their The Next program. Now they’re trying to get me to
join The Next as a mentor. Uh oh, that’s getting uncomfortably up-close and personal.
However, the excitement of these goals tends to wane. Now that a few months have passed, I find myself wandering, lacking motivation. The fear is seeping in again. Will my brain give out? Will the seizure meds stop working? Will the cancer come back—or be replaced by a new worse one, like bowel? Is the rest of life going to be this drunken, staggering dance between worry and distraction? As Frankl said, I find myself having to “force my mind to the task.”
Next come the other two challenges: living fully and joyfully in the present, and living for something beyond myself. Life seems to get in the way of that so easily. Urgency leads to impatience leads to dissatisfaction leads to selfishness – aagh!
Am I the only one who feels like that? Surely not.
What will it take to create a life where one lives in the moment, lives beyond themselves and lives toward a meaningful goal? How do the everyday requirements of life fit in with that?
Then I remember that the sickness in my cells may at some point return and bring those all-important questions back to the forefront of my life. Where they should be all along.
Perhaps that’s the challenge for all of us: to make the hypothetical question of what to do if we only had a week/month/year to live into our everyday reality, and set the goals that will help live into that reality.