On Death and Resolution

A few months ago, I had what some might consider a health scare. I write that in the past tense, although for all intents and purposes it is still ongoing since the fundamental causes of my problem haven’t been found or treated. And yet, I am relatively healthy and don’t feel too bad at the moment.

A cough that wouldn’t go away. An abnormal CT scan. A frustrated doctor. An increasingly alarmed patient. These were the ingredients of a month-long odyssey into the possibility that perhaps Everything Might Not Turn Out Okay.

Part of it, to be sure, is me being me: a little overly dramatic, a little over-sensitive, a touch of hypochondria. But just because I didn’t uncover a life-altering diagnose doesn’t mean my life has been unaltered. Quite to the contrary, I have felt the edges of the veneer of mortality much more keenly in the past few months, and it’s changing me.

A series of deaths of family friends. Increased air travel (several trips in just a few months, far above average for me, and something I hate). Last week’s news of the death of Steve Jobs.

When I re-read Mr. Jobs’ account of his first brush with the cancer that would take his life, from the text of his 2005 Stanford commencement address: this past weekend, I couldn’t help but relate. And now can’t help but to quote his address at length:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

The appeal of (this portion of) Jobs’ speech lies in its utter fearlessness in the face of that which most of us fear most. That he could transform a fear of death into a catalyst for action is inspiring to say the least.

Can I live my life as if each day is my last? Can I avoid being trapped by the results of other people’s thinking? Can I follow my heart and intuition?

Can you?