#1 Don’t be afraid of death
1: Don’t be afraid of death
Cancer. I was diagnosed with leukemia on December 11th, 2020. Without knowing too many details, right off the top I was thinking I was going to die. We’ve all heard the survival rates of cancer. We all know someone close to us that has died from it. It is the second leading cause of death in America trailing behind heart disease, and I honestly know more people to have died from cancer than heart disease.. Cancer kills on average 600,000 people per year.
When faced with something potentially terminal we immediately think about death. We are terrified of the idea of dying. Why, though? What precipitates this fear? Is it because we think about the things we haven’t accomplished? Do we think about our family that will be left behind? Or is it the fear of the unknown? I think it’s more the fact that we don’t know what’s on the other side, and I think that it’s that the fear of the unknown that really strikes dread into the hearts and minds of men and women alike.
While I want more time on this planet, there’s no denying that I have had a good life. I have a beautiful wife that loves me with all her heart. There are two wonderful daughters that constantly bring a smile to my face. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with them? I want to live but I’m not afraid of dying. That’s the key. I’m not afraid of dying. That’s what I want people to understand as I get deeper into this topic. Yes, I want to live. No, I do not want it to end prematurely. Death, however, is not something to be feared. Cancer can bring with it an early grave, but with or without cancer, we all die of something at some point anyway. Why should we be afraid of the inevitable?
Cancer brings with it a certain morbid sense of our humanity. We are faced with the fact that if left untreated, we will die. Thankfully there are a tremendous amount of wonderful modern methods of medicine. We can turn it around and delay death, but that’s all we’re doing. We’re only delaying death. Whether we have cancer or not, we’re all going to die. You have to come to terms with that. It could be cancer, its complications, or something as simple as a car accident but death is waiting for all of us.
Sooner or later, hopefully later, our time ends. I had been reading a bit of philosophy prior to my diagnosis. Stoic philosophy had been a big part of that reading. Memento mori. Remember you must die. You “must” die. Not “might”, not “probably”, but “must” die. Despite the advances of modern medicine. No one is immune to old age. Even if we are so lucky to avoid all possible tragedies and live to be 105 years old, eventually there comes a time when our hearts will simply fail. If we know it’s coming, we should do our best to be prepared for that inevitable crossing.
When thinking more frequently about death, it frightens you less and less, or at least it did for me. Again, I have to emphasize that I don’t want to die. This talking about death may make it seem as if it is a welcomed opportunity. It is not. But I want to make it an acquaintance that when my time comes, I have no reason to be shy about our greeting. Knowing that death is always there gives us a different perspective on how to view life. As the question goes, “what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?” Similarly, what if you knew you were going to die in a year, 5 years, or 10. Would you live your life differently? Are you living today with the possibility that tomorrow will not come? Say yes to more. Say no to more. You will have to decide what those things are but don’t get trapped into living a life that will bring you regrets when death decides that he wants to get more personal than just as an acquaintance.
It’s sad to say that a death sentence brings us more life than living without one. How many stories have we heard about cancer (or any other fatal diagnosis) turning someone’s life around and them suddenly living life to the fullest? I can’t say that I’m any different. I smile more frequently. I’m more friendly to people. I have more patience. I’d wager that people would find that hard to believe given my good nature to begin with, but it’s true. I can’t say that I’ve dropped everything to live out my dreams of being an international surfer, but what I do have is a greater appreciation for the moments I have now. I live in the present more frequently. I’m not devoid of worry or anxiety, but those moments are much less frequent than they were before my diagnosis.
I don’t have all the answers, and neither does anybody else. If the one true answer were out there then we wouldn’t be volumes of books by philosophers, self help gurus, and religious groups. What I do have are a set of examples that I use on a daily or weekly basis to help keep things in perspective for me. What I’m offering is an insight to a cancer patient’s thought process as the very real possibility of death looms.
Life has its fair share of ups and downs. Too often we take the ups for granted. More than not, it’s the “case of the Mondays” that is our focus. How many times have you spilled some food or drink down your shirt on your way to work? When checking out at the grocery store, have you ever picked the wrong lane and gotten behind that elderly individual that wants to pay with a check, or the ambitious type that has two hundred coupons to use? These bad scenarios seemingly pervade our existence. What we will overlook in these times are the opportunities to see just how good we have it. In our rush to work, we might have not tightened the lid to our coffee tight enough. It spills as we’re riding down the highway. Coffee leaves a nice little stain if left untreated. The opportunity here is for us to remember that we have a method of travel to work. We have a job that produces an income. Coffee in and of itself is a luxury. It might stain and we might have ruined that shirt but there’s a whole closet full of other things we can wear tomorrow. But you’ll ask me, “what about the embarrassment that it put me through?” If you are asking me that question then you know you’re not alone. I bet that when you got to work, someone smiled at you. They didn’t laugh at you. They knew exactly what you were going through because they had been there. Other human beings aren’t nearly as mean as we think they’ll be in our head.
As we come to terms with what we have, we also need to come to terms with our word usage. Just like worrying about the split coffee when in reality we’re lucky to have coffee, I often change out my verbs. The biggest change is instead of saying “I have to,” I say “I get to.” My doctor’s appointment this morning was at 7am. They ask that you check in by 6:45am. This meant leaving the house at 6:15am. This meant getting up at 5:15am. It’s easy to say, “I have to get up early,” whereas instead I say “I get to go to the doctor’s office.”. (Side note: even Word wants to change “get” to “have”) How many people the world over do not have the access to the same medical treatment I do? I’m healthy enough that I can drive myself. I have the ability to get myself to and from the clinic. This simple word switch helps me to keep in perspective the things I have access to that most do not. This allows me to keep in mind that I live in a first world country and have more than most. Can I get lost in the sweeping depression that is my lost life? Sure I could, but that’s pathetic. I am a strong, capable man and instead of looking at all that has gone wrong, I can simply look at all that is going well and keep my sights set on the skies instead of the ground. There’s an old Native American proverb that says you don’t drown by falling in the river but instead by not getting up. Gratitude is much the same way. If you don’t want to drown, then all you have to do is get up. I know it’s easier said than done but we have the tools and the emotional control to look up instead of letting the water flow over our heads.