On legacy

Ten months ago, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was told it was Stage 4 and that half of similarly diagnosed patients die within ten months. They did not say that I had ten months left to live, because they did not know. But I am alive still. I count myself lucky, even if only in this context. Fortunate within the unfortunate circumstance of terminal cancer.

I also feel fairly well, and people, meeting me, cannot tell that I am sick. I’ve been on a clinical trial since my chemotherapy stopped working three months ago. Recent blood tests suggest that the new drug is working, but it is hard to hope on what only an experiment suggests. The likelihood of success is unknown. The doctors could guess, but they don’t even know the likelihood of the likelihood of success. And what does success even mean? Does it mean that my life might be saved, or merely extended? (Is that a difference of kind or only of degree?) If extended, does it mean by a couple of years or by a few months?

I met someone who had the same diagnosis as I did, except that his diagnosis was given three months earlier. He turned out to be a distant relative of some friends, and so I learned that he died just a few weeks ago. (The two, three times we met, I was struck by his friendliness and his clarity towards the future.) Even as real and as sad as his death was for him and his family and friends, I think mostly of what it means to me. This is self-absorbed thinking, but it is hard not to think that the spectre of death is haunting and taunting me in particular.

Of course, no such thing is happening, for there is no spectre of death, nothing picking me singularly, no way that something that does not exist can haunt except in my projection of it. In the way that darkness cannot haunt us, for it is in reality nothing but the absence of light, death too cannot haunt us, for it is nothing but the absence of life.

I am in fact haunting myself, because I don’t yet appreciate how death, and the possibility and probability of my death, just is. Death happens to all, to the brave, the wise, the foolish, and even to those who laugh at the absurdity of it all. There is nothing magical in dying, nothing grand in it whatsoever, yet death can somehow close and enclose my entire world.

I want to somehow survive death, as we all probably do. I don’t believe in an afterlife or a soul that can exist apart from this body. But it is plain that I will be remembered by others after I die, even if only for trivial or minor things, and their lives will continue beyond me. There is vanity in finding comfort here. We know it is vanity, because we know that that too cannot really last. Those who remember me will someday die as well. And those who remember those who remember me will also someday. And so on and so on, until there is no one left who remembers me at all.

This reasoning applies to you and to everyone else as well. This includes the mightiest of kings, as Shelley reminded us in Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Despite the equality of this universal inevitability, there are differences of degree. The traces of Hollywood celebrities and prime ministers, published authors and YouTube stars, will last longer than my own. The traces of those with many children will last longer than those without. And even those supremely unworthy, those who commit acts of evil just to be remembered, will have their names last longer than my own.

But being remembered after you die is not that different from being known now. Being remembered after you die is just being famous for a future crowd. And if so many of us claim to eschew fame or popularity, should we not then also eschew what is only posthumous fame? But eschewing this desire is not easy — for it means to accept limits on our existence, an outer bound to our lives. It means to close off the possibility of immortality.

There’s no fame in being simply a good and decent person, which is something I have tried to be. But in this striving is all that matters and all that one can really have control over: one’s own actions. This isn’t necessarily a comforting fact, but it is better to try to reconcile oneself with the truth rather than to bend the truth to what we wish were so.

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My fear of dying

We are afraid of dying, so afraid that we avoid talking about it, avoid thinking about it, avoid confronting the unfortunate fact that we all die. What makes this so astonishing is that death surrounds us: “dead leaves, insects and pets, disappearing grandparents, grieving parents, endless acres of cemetery tombstones.”1 And something — a plant, an animal — must have died whenever we eat.

We divert our attention away from it; we want look at anything but death itself. And when we can look at it, we think of it as something that happens to others, even though we know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that it happens to us all. We refuse to infer and acknowledge consciously the terrifying conclusion that “because I am human, I too will die.”

Even as a philosopher, I have never fully faced up to this fact. I thought I had. But now, in the face of my own death,2 I realize that I haven’t. I did try, though. I’ve read books and papers on the philosophy of death, and I’ve tried to think through the consequences of dying and what it means to live such a short time in comparison to what time there is.

In the context of what is called “contemporary history”, this is the part of it that I’ve been alive for:

Image1

I have lived a little over half of that period. If I include the projected lifespans of those who are my age, given the average life expectancy at birth is 71, the blue part is what the span of my life would look like.Image2

Looking at it this way, it feels like I’d miss out on a lot:Image3And if I were to include all of modern history, which starts roughly with 1500, it would like this:

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The difference between my life (one with terminal cancer) and the lives of others my age begins to look negligible. If I include all of recorded human history, which started roughly in 4000 BC, it would look like this:

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Here, we can barely see the difference between my ~39 years and another’s 71. In fact, my 39 years of existence would be about three pixels wide, and the average of 71 years would only be about six pixels wide.

If I include the entire span of the human race, which started roughly 200,000 years ago, it would look like this.

Image6

 

The difference is completely moot. And in fact, our lives wouldn’t even make up anything close to the size of a pixel. (Check out all those arrows pointing at the same damn tiny spot.)

And let’s look into the future and from several magnitudes higher. In a billion years, the sun will get too hot for all but the simplest of life forms. The entire existence of the human race itself, until 2049, wouldn’t amount to only about a tenth of pixel on the screen.

 

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If I include the beginning of the planet itself, the whole existence of humanity up to 2049 would amount to a quarter of a pixel.

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We are surrounded by nothingness. We are, at best, blips in the span of all that will ever exist. And I haven’t even drawn a graph of our lives within the span of the age of the universe.3

But now facing the truth that I will die, I realize that I haven’t shed all the trivia and unwarranted assumptions of life. I still care, even if less so now, about what others think of me. I still get the momentary and pleasurable rush of a getting a “like” on social media. There is nothing evil or inherently bad about this, but it is a distraction from the things that matter.

Sometimes what I find difficult isn’t the fact that I will die soon, but the fact that other people continue their lives with unerring normality – as if everything were just the same. (How could it be otherwise? They have their own lives to live.) There is profound loneliness in this but also the futile urge to shake people out of their routine and out of their everyday mode. I know better than to try to do this, but I’ve tried anyway — and you probably noticed that’s what this post is about.

I want everyone to engage with life in the present, to make efforts for meaningful connections, to follow their own voices and listen to their own reason. But what do I really know about how to live your life? Maybe nothing. Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean I should be giving advice about how you ought to be or what you ought to do. But just for the same reason, I feel bold enough to try.


  1. Irving Yalom, Staring at the Sun
  2. For those of you new to this blog, I have a terminal cancer, specifically, stage IV pancreatic cancer. 
  3. I’ve tried to be make these diagrams to scale, but I haven’t double checked my calculations. 

How much time do I have left?

When I was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was given a terrifying number: 10. On average, someone diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer has ten months to live.

And what sounds scary is the fact that I was given this statistic a little over seven months ago, which makes it sound like I have only about three months left to live.

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But this logic isn’t right. I have survived the last seven months (actually, I’ve lived the last seven months intensely), and so the number I should be concerned with is not

  • “How many months, on average, does the diagnosed Stage 4 pancreatic cancer patient, who has just been diagnosed, have?”

But

  • “How many months, on average, does the Stage 4 pancreatic cancer patient, who is still alive after seven months, have?”

The answers to these two questions are different, because they take their averages from two different sets of people. To answer the first question, your set would include everyone who’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. And that means including all the people who did not make it to seven months: those who died within one month after their diagnosis, two months after their diagnosis, and so on.

But to answer the second question, you would not include everyone. You would exclude all those people who died within seven months of their diagnosis. And so the average number of months this group of stage 4 pancreatic cancer should be higher. In other words, the answer to the question “how many months do I have left?” should be more than three months.

The difficult thing is that I have no idea what the answer to the second question is or how many more months I actually do have.

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But I’ve recently got on good terms with uncertainty, which is a good thing, since uncertainty — about life and death no less — has forced its way to become my constant companion.

Changes to my body

My body has undergone many physical changes over the last 6 months, since my cancer diagnosis and my chemo began. I used to have hair on my head.

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Now I do not.

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All this from the chemotherapy.

I’ve also had a plastic triangular disc placed under the skin on my chest which allows for easier intravenous access for chemo drugs. I’ve also lot some weight. And those are just the changes one can see.

My treatment has also given me peripheral neuropathy, which means my fingers and toes tingle all the time.

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And the fatigue is persistent, and even as it wanes the further from my last treatment, it pops up unpredictably, causing me to end social engagements early, to leave my friends before I finish my coffee or tea, to leave parties well before the end, just so I can go home and sleep.

In all of this I have been fortunate—my body is continuing to respond well to treatment (relatively speaking). The cancer itself is having less effect on my body than it once did, despite still remaining my probable and eventual killer.

It’s difficult to deal with change, even if you recognize its inevitability and its pervasiveness. If you change one thing, and deal with that, that’s still hard but okay, especially if you are the change’s agent rather than its plaything.

A large, unshakeable, change will come to me swiftly at some point. The chemo will stop working, and the cancer will overtake my body and me. It will be fast—a matter of months. But it will also be slow—months are long. The cancer will bring fatigue down on me like rain. I will not burn out or end with a bang. Instead, I will whimper and fade away. My death will be pathetic.

A Chinese Accent

I.

Sometimes, I wish I had a Chinese accent.

My cousin recently said that when I was younger, I wanted to get away from being Chinese. He didn’t mean this as an insult, but as praise. And I don’t think he meant precisely what he said. What he meant, I think, is that I wanted to get away from the attitudes and habits and beliefs that my parents and my uncles and aunts had. I wanted to be less provincial, less culturally embedded, and more cosmopolitan.

He didn’t mean that I wanted to be white; after all, he didn’t say that. But it seems like that to me a little, because being white somehow means being non-ethnic. It is somehow the default in our culture. Any deviation from being white seems to need justification to those of us who are not.

I like to think that the truth behind what my cousin said is that from the very the beginning, I searched for eternal truths, that I wanted to get at objective truth, to get at something that doesn’t depend on anyone’s particular circumstances, let alone mine, that I wanted to view things sub specie aeternitatis, just as the philosopher I came to be.

II.

But there’s some literal truth in what my cousin said. I did want to escape being Chinese. And to my shame, I did I want to be white. When I was about 7 or 8, I remember being shocked that I wasn’t. I had watched so much TV and so many movies, and I had always identified with the loner, the underdog, the nerd, who through his intelligence, virtuousness, and courage would be rewarded — in particular, I would be rewarded with the girl. This is a compelling trope, but it is ultimately a sexist narrative that hurts both men and women.

The point I want to make though is that that loner is more often than not a white boy. And I thought that I was that loner, until I watched a tv show where the underdog had an Asian friend. And then that, I realized, was me. I was not even the underdog. I was, at best, the underdog’s friend. I had no story of my own, only a bit part in someone else’s.

Over the years, a few people—almost always white—have told me that they don’t think of me as Chinese but as Canadian. They meant this as a compliment, which, under the influence of my own racial insecurity and self-hatred, I accepted and welcomed it. Anything to make me feel less alone. There was comfort in being told that I was Canadian, that I was accepted into Canadian society by its “old-stock” citizens. This was true even if I was born and raised here.

III.

In high school, I had a classmate who was articulate, smart, but most importantly, he was funny. So I listened to him. He was Indian, but had a thoroughly English name, for Christian missionaries had converted his family long before they moved to Canada.

I remember that he once told me of a theory that there were three types of humans in the world: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. This was an 18th century anthropological theory, no longer in use and highly criticized as racist and unfounded. But the point he wanted to make was that I, being Chinese, was Mongoloid (a term also once used to describe those with Down syndrome) and not the “higher” type of human, that of being Caucasoid. This was not only a way of identifying and categorizing human beings, but also that of creating and maintaining a hierarchy of human nature.

This was made plain when he told me that Indians and other South Asians were also Caucasoid. And this meant that he himself was Caucasoid. And in making these points, he helped me develop a self-hatred that would take me years to shed. But I don’t really blame him for his racism, because there was self-hatred in him too. He wanted to be white too—or, if not white, at least in the same category as being white.

IV.

Admittedly, I have lived a life that has left a lot of Chinese culture and ethos behind. I have studied Western philosophy for over 20 years, wrote my PhD dissertation on Kant, who is about as western as Western philosophy gets. I’m no longer very good at speaking Cantonese or Taishanese, even though I spoke them as a child, long before I spoke a word of English. I do not watch Hong Kong movies or listen to Hong Kong pop music. And I do not believe in Chinese superstitions. I also do not follow the lessons of Confucius, of Mao, of the Buddha, or any Sifu. And despite what my parents’ wishes, I did not become a medical doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

I do love Chinese food though. And I enjoy watching kung fu movies. But these hardly count as ways of being Chinese. After all, the Wu Tang Clan loves these things as much as I do, if not more so.

I do not know how much I avoided adopting “Chinese” characteristics because I wanted to avoid being thought of as Chinese. I am, however, sure that I worked hard to pronounce words correctly, without a Chinese accent, so I would be taken seriously.

But whether one is taken seriously or not should have nothing to do with one’s accent, and a large part of me wishes that I had one—as proof that I am Chinese, as proof that I never hated myself.

Not that I, or anyone else of colour, needs such proof. Who would it be for anyway?

On the fear of not being special

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter series, but I have seen all the movies. And strangely enough, I have read some Harry Potter fan fiction, namely, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

There’s one scene in the original where Harry puts on the Sorting Hat to decide which school to go to. Yudkowsky’s reimagines Harry as wanting to go to Ravenclaw and having the following telepathic conversation with the Hat:

Sorting Hat: “What is the real reason you must not go to Hufflepuff and be happier there? What is your true fear?”

Harry Potter: I must achieve my full potential. If I don’t, I fail.

“What happens if you fail?”

…I don’t know!

“Then it should not be frightening. What happens if you fail?”

There was silence for a moment in the caverns of Harry’s mind.

“You know – you aren’t letting yourself think it, but in some quiet corner of your mind you know just exactly what you aren’t thinking – you know that by far the simplest explanation for this unverbalisable fear of yours is just the fear of losing your fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in you, of turning out to be pretty much ordinary, of flashing and fading like so many other child prodigies.’

The urge to work as hard as you can, to reach your full potential, can be motivated by the fear that you aren’t special – that you aren’t so great. But in reality, there’s nothing so bad about not being special and not being great. Happiness might be more important.

This fear can sometimes drive one to work hard, but it can also drive one away from working hard. Because the closer you get to working really hard, the more you see your limits, how much further you have to go, how much you cannot do, and how much others may be better than you. And then if you don’t work hard, you can always tell yourself, “I may not be great, but I always had the potential to be great.”

This fear is deep, but it doesn’t motivate for the right reasons. It cannot sustain your curiosity or creativity. Those need a life of their own.