Struggle

If you try hard at something but fail, you experience disappointment. And the harder you try, the greater the disappointment.

This is a lesson we learn when we’re young, but we spend the rest of our lives wrestling with its implications. How can we motivate ourselves to work really hard, when we know that we might fail? And the harder we work, the more bitter the failure?

Here are some ways that I have found to be promsing:

  • Try to maximize the amount of work that you enjoy doing for its own sake, and minimize the work you do only because of its results.
  • Try to find a way to love the process over the outcome.
  • Try to accept the fact that success depends on factors outside our control, and try to allow only what is within our control — for instance, the efforts we make — to affect our state of mind.
  • Try to see that we’re playing with odds here, and that even though we know that the harder we work, the greater the disappointment, greater too is the likelihood of success.

But despite all this, for me to do the hard work, I have to know that there is, at the very least, the possibility of success. It is hard to endure a struggle without at least the possibility of something good resulting from my efforts. To quote from Galatians: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

Here’s the thing about having terminal cancer. You will struggle but then you will die; there is no reward. There is nothing that I will reap in the end for all the efforts I make in dealing with this illness. It was always going to kill me. There is no great payoff in the end for fighting cancer bravely or with apparent wisdom. I will be dead. I will no longer exist to enjoy whatever gains there were to be had.

There is no rest either. We are fond of saying “rest in peace,” of imagining that people who die are finally allowed to rest their weary souls. We are fond of saying this even if we are atheists and believe that death is the end, that there is no person who persists after it. But how can something that does not exist rest? Do the flames rest when the fire is out?

So this is a struggle without a reward. Is this why I find it so fucking hard?

I know, though, that the struggle itself is not all dark. It’s still up to me to make an extra effort to enjoy what I can — to take an extra second to enjoy my coffee, to taste the sweet freshness in the fruits I can still eat, to cherish the warmth of friends and family, to write a word here and there.

Cancer, you will take everything from me eventually. But not yet, you fucking asshole.

 

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Years, months, weeks

It would have taken me months to write many more essays. Years, probably, before I wrote a really good one. And it would have taken me forever to understand and figure out all that I wanted to understand and figure out.

But what I got are weeks.

The chemotherapy regimen I’ve been on, Gemcitabine, has stopped working. Blood tests show that my tumour-marker levels are rising. My pain is being managed well, but it is getting worse — it’s clear that my disease is advancing. And my appetite has diminished greatly; eating often hurts.

The most promising treatments are not all that promising. They are phase 1 clinical trials of drugs broad enough for any cancer, whose effectiveness is thus far only speculative and whose dosage has yet to be determined. So at this point, they’re more likely to do harm than good.

And because pancreatic cancer moves so quickly, what I got are weeks.

Before I had cancer, I too had years. And for the last year and a half, I had months. It was only logical that it would turn into weeks at some point. And so it happens now.

Marcus Aurelius once asked himself how he would react if a god told him that he would either die tomorrow or the day after. And he couldn’t see what difference it would make.

 

Is dying a transformative experience?

When you hear that someone has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it isn’t too hard to be philosophical about it:

  • “That’s awful. But such is life.”
  • “Misfortune can befall any of us, can’t it?”
  • “We never know when our time is up. We must do what we can to live the life we’ve got and appreciate it as we go.”

But when you hear that you have terminal cancer, you think: “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why is life so fucking unfair?”


In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper called “What is it like to be bat?”1 In it, he made the observation that a bat experiences the world probably quite differently from the way we experience the world. And he argued that, in fact, a bat’s experience is so different that we, being human, cannot in principle know what it’s like to be a bat. We can imagine ourselves hanging upside down, eating bugs, using sonar to navigate, and so on. But we’re doing just that: imagining ourselves doing the things bats do. What we’re not doing is imagining what it’s like to be a bat.

This difficulty, of imagining what it’s like to be another creature, is not just there between a human and a bat; it’s there between any two creatures, even when they’re members of the same species. I can imagine, if I try hard enough, what it’s like for me to be in your shoes. But can I imagine what it’s like for me to be you in your shoes? I can imagine myself living your kind of life, but I can’t really imagine what it’s like for you to live your kind of life.

We relate to each other because we have something in common. That’s why it is hard to a relate to a bat, or people who are very different from us. I think this is why small talk exists. If you and I can talk about the weather, then there’s something we can agree on. Now that we’ve established that we have something in common, we can relate to each other.

Deeper connections between two people, though, need more than small talk. They need ground that is not only common but important to both of them. Think of those who share a common struggle: players on a sports team, soldiers in a platoon, students in graduate school. Many of these relationships do not last when the individuals no longer share the same goal, for example, when a player gets traded or when a student drops out of school. Some friendships do last, long after the shared purpose has ended — when the war is over, for example. But the friendships between soldiers persist largely because the history they share matters to who they are now. Few veterans leave that consequential aspect of their lives out of their self-conception.

And those who have been friends for a long time often choose to talk about the past rather than the present. It’s the past we still have in common. And it’s the past we rely on, even when everything in our lives seem to change. We change beyond recognition, and yet, when we get together, we talk about that time we fit all eight of us in the car and Sam, god bless him, volunteered to ride in the trunk.

There’s a gap between us that we don’t want to shed light on. Some things stay the same, but many things do not. What we have in common becomes increasingly diluted by the new important things in our lives: our marriages, our children, our divorces, our new careers, our recent struggles. We think if we put in enough effort, we can imagine what our friends go through. We can imagine what it’s like to have children (or we can remember what it’s like not to have children) and if we try hard to enough to imagine (or to remember), our friendships can still grow.

But here’s where Nagel’s bat swoops in. I don’t know if I can imagine what it’s like to have children. And I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like to have terminal cancer.


The philosopher L.A. Paul has recently argued that becoming a parent is what she calls a transformative experience.2 This may sound like some purple poetic expression, but it’s a technical term and she means something specific by it. For an experience to count as transformative, (1) you have to learn something you could not have learned without having had that experience, and (2) after having had that experience, you think of yourself differently, or orient your life according to different values. This means that you cannot imagine what it’s like to have a transformative experience, because otherwise it wouldn’t be transformative: the experience tranforms you so much that you are now a different person and you could not have known how you would be different beforehand.

I don’t know if becoming a parent is really, truly a transformative experience, but it probably comes as close as anything. My wife and I tried to have children, but luck again wasn’t on our side. So I will never know what it’s like to have children. I do not know how it would have changed me and what I care about. If you think I’m trying to make this sound sad, I should let you know that Paul is clear in saying that transformative experiences are not inherently positive or, for that matter, inherently negative. It isn’t necessarily good or bad to have them. Precisely because they change you, you cannot know if they are good or bad: if we have not had a transformative experience, we cannot say that it would be good or bad to have it, since we do not know what it’s like; and if an experience changes us fundamentally, we cannot say that it was good or bad for us since we cannot compare it with how things were before since we no longer see things the way we used to.

I don’t know if having a terminal illness is a transformative experience either. Other than hearing the words “it’s incurable” or “your prognosis is months”, being as sick as I am bears no unique phenomenological experiences. There is no sensation to dying (at least not yet). There’s pain, to be sure, and the pain feels different and I feel it in strange new places. But the pain doesn’t tell you it’s dying pain. There’s fatigue also, but we’ve all been tired before. And now, just because it lasts longer and persists despite the usual remedies, the tiredness doesn’t tell you that you’re dying. There are also side effects in treating the illness, but none of those tell you that you are dying either. After all, the same treatment with the same side effects is given to those for whom the disease is still curable. All this probably explains why so many of us do not accept our fates — having one’s illness be terminal doesn’t feel like anything special at all.

There’s only this to the experience: the recurring and constant pain, the fatigue that lasts for days on end, over and over again, the nausea and the headaches, and the ever increasing portion of your time spent inside pharmacies and hospitals, going to them, coming back from them, with doctors and nurses and other people there to help you, with tubes and needles, putting fluids inside you while extracting others. My illness has become my life, or at least a large part of it. But those who have terrible but curable illnesses also live this kind of life.

So what tells me I’m dying? There’s no gut feeling — no gut knowledge that I only have so much time. There’s just my doctors’ words buttressed by data that only they can intelligibly interpret. (One might take all this as reason for me to distrust my doctor and hew my own way. But what it really shows is my unavoidable dependence on experts and how there’s only so much epistemological value to my feelings.) But there is something to knowing that you have a disease that’s going to kill you soon. If you accept that fact, and acknowledge it deep down and in all the things you do, I think it does transform you.


The young prefer spending their time meeting new people over spending it with those they already know well. They are preoccupied by questions such as, “what will I do next?”, “will I become successful?”, “what should I do to become successful?”, “will I find my soulmate?” But the elderly, it seems, are different: they prefer to spend their time with family rather than strangers, and with old friends rather than trying to make new ones. And because they know their time is limited, they want to spend it on everyday pleasures and the people they know they already love.3

When I was young, my family and I would make a yearly visit to New Jersey where my great aunt and her family lived. We would stay there for a week or so and play around their large house, as my mom’s extended family would dote on us. But whenever it was time for us to go, to begin our journey back home to Montreal, my mom’s aunt would cry. She was always a little frail, and I had wondered then, as I wonder now, if she was preparing herself to say goodbye for the very last time.

I do that too now. Friends visit from far away, and I wonder if it’s the last time I will ever see them. Friends talk about visiting me in four or five months, and I wonder if I’ll be around to receive them. I went to McDonalds a few weeks ago — I have a small but special fondness for the place — and I wondered if it was the last time I’d ever eat there. Epictetus counselled that we do that on purpose: we should try to imagine each meeting with a loved one, each experiencing of an ordinary pleasure, as possibly our last, even when we’re not terminally ill, so that we may learn to appreciate what we have and not dwell too much on what we don’t. He thought it would change us for the better. I have tried to follow his advice for many years, long before I was sick. But it was hard to do in any real capacity. Now it has become part of my everyday. I’m no longer sure if Epictetus is right about whether this practice changes us for the better. But I do think it changes us.

So what this means is that there is this gap between me, who is dying, and you, who are not. If you are young, you still want to do things that can shape the rest of your life. If you are older or if you are sick like me, you might not care so much to shape the rest of your life as much as to live it and appreciate what you can. These differences between us are unavoidable and understandable. But it means that no matter how much some of you are there for me, I still feel alone. You do not know what it’s like to be dying, and you probably can’t know, until it happens to you.

I suppose this is why support groups exist. Only other people who are living with cancer knows what it’s like to live with cancer. Only others facing a terminal illness really know what it’s like to face a terminal illness. And when I go to these support groups, I do feel less alone. But only for a short while. Not everyone at a support group is dying, and not every dying person accepts that they’re dying. But more to the point, these people are not my friends or my family, and, being short on time, I’m not interested in making new friends.


I’m not the only one this illness has transformed. It has turned my wife into someone whose husband is dying. And it will eventually turn my wife into a widow. I do not and cannot know what it’s like to watch your husband or wife suffer through this illness, and I will not know and cannot know what it’s like to lose the love of my life. I can only imagine what it’s like for her now and what it will be like for her then, and she can only imagine what it’s like for me – and we both know that such imaginings can only give us the barest outline of what our experiences are like. There are two of us transformed by this illness, but in different ways. My wife and I are both left a little alone by this illness, left incompletely understood, even by each other.

But despite that, we are here for each other. And even if none of my friends and family really understand what it’s like to be dying or what it’s like to have a husband who’s dying, they are here for us — unwavering and stalwart. Now that life seems so fragile and short to me, all this seems like a wonder.


  1. Here’s a link to Nagel’s article. ↩︎
  2. See Paul’s “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting” and “Précis of Transformative Experience both available on her website. ↩︎
  3. See Chapter 4 of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. ↩︎

What I want you to know

There’s this pressure among the sick, among those of us with cancer, to fight our illnesses as hard as we can. This pressure has a variety of sources: family members, friends, the culture at large (think cultural depictions of illness like well-known asshole Lance Armstrong), and even others afflicted with cancer. The pressure turns into a particular myth: one’s chances of survival depends on the character and personality of the one afflicted. If you are strong and if you fight and if you hope, you will survive, or at least live longer.

This myth, or a cousin of it, manifests itself among those who are not sick: “if you exercise, eat enough vegetables, meditate, think positively, pray regularly, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, don’t eat too much red meat, etc, you won’t even get sick.” This is of course not true. Doing some of these things will reduce your chances of getting sick, but nothing reduces your chances to zero.

But for whatever reason, we have a hard time thinking in degrees. We would rather think in terms of either/or: if you did all the right things and avoided all the wrong things, then it is 100% certain you will not get cancer. So if you did get cancer, then you did not do all the right things or did not avoid all the wrong things.

(But rejecting this either/or leads some of us to make a different mistake: “if doing all the right things and avoiding all the wrong things does not prevent cancer, then there’s no point in even trying.” When you try to avoid thinking that everything is black or white, do not thereby think that everything is the same shade of gray. It’s still a good idea not to smoke.)

We know intellectually that there’s nothing that can prevent us from having cancer with a 100% degree certainty. But I suspect that you don’t really believe this. That is why I feel the pressure to tell you that I did not smoke, that I did not drink, I meditated regularly, exercised regularly, gave to charity occasionally, volunteered, etc. Not that I did all the right things. I probably ate too much meat. I probably should have given more to charity. I’m suspicious of positive thinking, and I never prayed. But those things I failed at are probably not what gave me cancer. It was a factor outside my control.

I want you to believe this, because I want you to believe that this disease is not my fault. I want you to have a good impression of who I am and who I was. But it is, I recognize, hard for you to believe that it’s not, at least in some small way, my fault. Because otherwise you would have to believe that there are factors outside your control that can affect your very existence.

In other words, if my being getting cancer was outside my control, it then means that whether you get cancer can also be outside your control – you too could be faced with a terminal illness. And vice versa, if you believe that this is something that only happens to others, then you don’t really believe that my getting cancer was a matter of chance.

I think in previous posts, I have said that I wanted everyone to believe that this can happen to them, just because it happened to me. I wanted you to believe that I am like you, because I wanted you to believe that I am sick through no fault of my own. But I didn’t realize what that means. It means that you have to be genuinely and deeply aware of the capriciousness of your own life. And that can be debilitating – anxiety-provoking. (Spouses, family members, and close friends of the terminally ill are known to suffer from death-related anxiety more acutely than friends of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.) Facing not just the fact of your death but the fact that it might be out of your control can make living even harder than it already is.

And I don’t really want your life to be harder than it already is. So it’s okay to pretend that you’re exempt from all this. And it’s okay with me if you want to think it’s my fault I’m sick. Just keep it to yourself.

On thinking about death

When I think about dying, which is all the time now, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t think about all this before. And wondering about why I didn’t think about all this before is only one tiny step away from wondering why everyone else isn’t thinking about it now.

Scott Alexander once pointed out that one of the scariest things about utilitarianism is how intuitive and sensible it seems until you actually look at the real world. If you confine your world to your friends, family and neighbours, you might be willing to incur small loses for the greater benefits of others. But when you think about what the world is really like, and not just what’s within your normal world, it becomes very demanding and scary.

He offers the following fable:

Imagine a happy town full of prosperous people. Every so often they make nice utilitarian decisions like having everyone chip in a few dollars to help someone who’s fallen sick, and they feel pretty good about themselves for this.

Then one day an explorer discovers a BOTTOMLESS PIT OF ENDLESS SUFFERING on the outskirts of town. There are hundreds of people trapped inside in a state of abject misery. The Pit Gods agree to release some of their prisoners, but only for appropriately sumptuous sacrifices.

Suddenly the decision isn’t just “someone in town makes a small sacrifice to help other people in town”. Suddenly it’s about the entire town choking off its luxury and prosperity in order to rescue people they don’t even know, from this pit they didn’t even know was there a week ago. That seems kind of unfair.

So they tell the explorer to cover the lid of the pit with a big tarp that blends in with the surrounding grass, so they don’t have to see it, and then go on with their lives.

But the thing about the world – the real world, the world we have now – is that there are actual things that are very much like bottomless pits of endless suffering. They comprise the developing world, the poor, the mentally disabled, the elderly in nursing homes, prisons, psychiatric wards, most hospitals, those dying in war-torn countries, and those ravaged by disease.

And while utilitarianism would be relatively easy if there were no bottomless pits of suffering, it’s damn hard in reality where these pits exist. And we can’t just cover these pits with tarps. First, these pits are not literal holes in the ground and they don’t make tarps big enough anyway. And moreover, we have a hard time being so deliberately callous. But what we do is not much better.

I don’t know what you do when you are asked to think about all the suffering in the world. But here’s what I do: I think about it for a bit, then say, “It’s a complicated problem, and there’s not much I can do about it.” But I never put actual effort in finding out how complicated the problem is or ever try to do much about it. I just repeat the “it’s complicated” mantra to myself every time the issue comes up.

My own dying is just one of millions. My own suffering is not worse than those of millions’ others. What I’m going through is relatively easy to contemplate, but even I flinch when I think about it. Much easier before when I didn’t have to think about dying at all. Now I’ve got no choice. I have to think about it. I can only imagine how hard it is for my friends and family to try to deliberately think about dying. That may come off as snarky, but it’s also sincere. (Can you be both snarky and sincere at the same time?)

People struggle with living their ordinary lives, and ordinary lives are not easy, with mortgages, taking care of children, looking for a job or an apartment, or worrying about whether you’re going to keep your job, worrying about your relationship with your spouse — those are real problems that are really difficult. And then you have to think about the fact that this Ken Chung, your friend, brother, son, cousin or nephew, is actually dying from cancer? DYING for chrissake! Of course, I’d rather be in your shoes than mine, unless you’re also in one of those bottomless pits or in one worse than mine. But it’s still hard, because most of your life, even though it’s normal, is still really hard, and we can only handle so many hard things at a time.

So here are some thoughts on how to relate to the dying, or at least to this dying person. If you can say something to me that is not cliché and sincere and kind, that’s amazing and incredible. Truly. But don’t ever feel guilty about saying something that is cliché to me. Even things like “You’re strong”, “You seem wise about all this”, “We have to enjoy the days we have” all mean a tremendous amount to me, even if I disagree and think I’m weak, unwise, and I have no idea how to enjoy what life I have left. You should know that you cannot pull me out of the pit I am in — my disease is incurable.1 All I ask is that you not a put a tarp over me and forget about me.

But even if you did that, I can’t really fault you. After all, part of me wants desperately to reject utilitarianism just because it makes me think about things I’d rather not.


  1. Even if you wanted to try pull me out of this pit, you would have to go and study immunotherapy, gene therapy, and/or oncology, and somehow make multiple Nobel prize-worthy breakthroughs really fast. 

“Why me?”

The question “why me?” has two problems. The “why” part, and the “me” part. The why part supposes that there is a reason for what has happened to you. In my case, the question would be “why do I have cancer?”

The why question can be answered in a way. The answer might sound like this: “well, cells need to grow in order for us to live. But when one cell divides into two, there is often mutation, just because there is no such thing as perfect cellular replication. And unfortunately, enough of your pancreas cells (or pick your favourite source) happened to mutate in such a way as to somehow bypass or short-circuit the mechanism that tells your cells to stop dividing when there is enough. And in your case, a particular mutation you were born with has made this more likely. And so now your pancreas cells are dividing out of control, and that is what cancer is. That is why you have cancer.”

But when someone asks “why me?”, this is not the answer they want.

There’s a distinction that goes back to at least Aristotle, between what is called an efficient cause and a teleological cause. When a carpenter fashions a table out of wood, using her tools, both the efficient cause and the teleological cause are at play. When she makes a table, she uses her hands to move certain physical objects, like saws, hammers, and sanders, in particular ways, which end up resulting in a table. In brief, the events that lead up to the table constitute the efficient cause. We would nowadays describe the efficient cause as the “cause”. The teleological cause, on the other hand, is the purpose for which she made the table. Maybe she intends it to be a gift for her parents, for a client who commissioned it, or for use in her own kitchen. This is probably a way-too simplified version of the distinction, but it’ll do for our purposes.

When someone asks “why me?”, they want a a teleological answer; they want to know what purpose their having cancer serves. The question “Why do I have cancer?” is like “Why did the carpenter make the table?” What the question really means is “why was I given cancer?”

But if you don’t believe in God or gods, or some other supernatural agent that makes the things in the world happen as they do, it is hard to ascribe any goal at all. But in a New York Times article from a couple years ago, the psychologists Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom pointed out that many atheists actually believe in fate, which they defined as “the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.” How this makes sense baffles me. Maybe they believe in karma. But how can karma be directed, unless someone is directing it?

It is easy enough to ascribe goals to the things that we humans do, because we have intentions and purposes. We write books, invest in stocks, take out the garbage, because we’re trying to sort things out or tell stories, trying to make money, keep the house clean. We may even say that Fido went to get water because he was thirsty. We also ascribe goals to god or Gods. One might even speculate that it is because humans find it so hard to conceive of events without purposes that we presuppose the existence of gods in the first place. But that’s a side issue. The point is that the less conscious something is, the less we ascribe it with intentions.

Some find purpose in nature, without necessarily assuming a god. If I understand it correctly, the Stoics had this view, as did Aristotle. Aristotle, for instance, thought that acorns intend to become oak trees (or maybe, “nature intends acorns to become oak trees”). Sometimes current science talks in this way too. The giraffe species adapted to have long necks in their particular environment in order to find food, or giraffes are supposed to live in a particular environment. But this is only ever meant metaphorically. It is a shorthand for an entirely different mechanism, which I wish I understood better. I do know that the teleological view of nature has fallen deeply out of favour ever since science started making leaps and bounds in the seventeenth century. Supposing that there are goals to natural objects and natural events hasn’t helped science understand the world at all, and has thus been dropped.

So is there a reason for any of us to have cancer? No, not really. Why any particular one of us might have cancer is really random. And so looking for a reason for you might have cancer is like looking for a reason for why the coin landed on heads, why the dice landed on 8, or, why Joe Schmo won the lottery and you didn’t. There’s no answer to any of it. It just is. Random events occur. And that’s all there is to it.

Maybe you’ll protest, and wonder whether that really matters, because isn’t it healthier to find meaning in life’s events? Doesn’t having this kind of attitude make us more resilient in the face of tragedy? Isn’t it better for one’s well-being to be religious than to be an atheist? To be spiritual rather than not?

I’ve read some psychologists who say so too, though I suspect many atheist scientists would question the research that this evidence was based on. I don’t know which side is right. But even if it’s healthier to be religious or not, it’s irrelevant.

First, we don’t really choose what to believe. When we discover that something is true, we cannot choose to disbelieve it. I believe, for example, that I’m sitting in front of a table, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot not believe this. I cannot convince myself that there is no table here. And on the flip side too: I cannot choose to believe in something if I already think it is false. I cannot make myself believe that there is a large, fluffy pink elephant sitting right next to me. I can imagine it, but I can’t believe it.

Many of us think that our religious beliefs are different from these other beliefs – that we can choose what religion to believe in, that it really is up to us. But I think the value of this statement isn’t in its literal truth; instead, it is in its demand for tolerating and accommodating each other’s religious beliefs.

Maybe it’s possible to develop a religious belief over time. If you surround yourself with people who share a particular religious belief, spend time reading that religion’s literature and avoid reading criticisms of it, maybe, after a while, you would come to believe in it. Maybe. I don’t know. But I doubt that trying to make yourself believe in anything is a good thing to do. And in any case, you certainly can’t choose your beliefs willy nilly.

But what about people who convert to another religion? There are, I admit, those who come to think that the beliefs of another religion are truer than their own. This, I think, happens out of natural shifts in changing one’s mind, not in a deliberate attempt to change one’s mind. There are, however, some who convert to a different religion less naturally, like those who convert to their spouse’s religion. But I don’t think most of these people really believe their spouse’s religion. And even among those who claim to, I doubt that they really are. What is really happening is something altogether different. They are instead professing to believe in something. And that is easy enough to do.

A fan of the Toronto Raptors might say that they are the best basketball team in the NBA, but if she knows anything about basketball, she doesn’t really believe it. And while the psychologists may be right in thinking that it is healthier to be religious, it’s an entirely different question about whether it is healthier to profess a religious belief without actually believing it.

And second, healthier or not, the problem remains. In the sense of whether it is true, it’s still wrong to ask “why me?” At least if you’re an atheist like me who thinks that many things happen without any reason at all.

The second problem with the “why me” question is the “me” part. Asking about “me” presumes that there is something different about you, something special, that makes you unlike the rest of humanity. But the universe, unfortunately, doesn’t think you’re special. In fact, it doesn’t think about you at all.

If this isn’t obvious, flip the question and ask: “why not me?” Or better: “why anybody?” Nature doesn’t discriminate. Cancer doesn’t care. It doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor, whether you are wise or ill-tempered, white or black, East Asian or West Indian, smart or dumb, whether you worked hard in life or not. It doesn’t even care whether you are a good person or a bad person. Cancer doesn’t give a shit about karma, about how much you donated to charity, or how many lives you may have saved. (Maybe you’re less likely to get cancer if you never smoked, ate more vegetables, and exercised regularly. But nothing has been known to prevent cancer altogether.)

And this is hard to accept, even for me — a lifelong atheist. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I have always found this moving, and I desperately want to believe that the world will in fact bend toward justice. I want to believe that the wicked will get what they deserve and the good their just rewards. The philosopher Kant thought this desire was so strong and so inexorable that it was better to believe that justice would eventually be served rather than not. We could not go on living our lives as we should, doing what is good and right, if we did not believe that justice would be delivered, at least eventually. And Kant thought that there was nothing that could guarantee this outcome except God. It was thus a moral imperative that we believe in God’s existence. I don’t, however, know what he would say about my qualms about whether we can choose what to believe.

When you hear stories about those who die from cancer, you sometimes hear how he or she never asked “why me?” This is supposed to be praise – as if there was something noble about not asking the question. I have argued that this question is bad, but I don’t think it’s childish or immature.

Asking “why did this happen to me” is perhaps the most natural and the most human of questions. Many psychologists and philosophers think it essential to having a meaningful life that we each create a story about our selves, that we create a narrative that gives an underlying arc to the major events in our lives. I’m not sure if doing so is important to having a meaningful life, but it is definitely true that many of us do it. And the most obvious way of trying to make sense of the events of our lives is to ask why they happened to us in the first place.

Things happen to us, and though we may not use those exact words, we often do ask “why me?” We ask “why me” when we wonder why we didn’t get the job we applied for — perhaps there’s some qualification or skill or charm that we lacked. It’s there when we wonder why our relationship fails — maybe there’s something wrong with us, or maybe something we could have done differently. When our car gets a flat, we wonder whether we should have changed our tires more frequently.

And we ask it when the good things happen too. When we think we got the job because we worked hard, we are answering a version of the “why me” question. When things turn out the way we want and believe that it is because our prayers have been heard, we are again answering just another version of the “why me” question.

In that same New York Times article, Banerjee and Bloom gave us the following story:

… James Costello was cheering on a friend near the finish line at the Boston Marathon when the bombs exploded, severely burning his arms and legs and sending shrapnel into his flesh. During the months of surgery and rehabilitation that followed, Mr. Costello developed a relationship with one of his nurses, Krista D’Agostino, and they soon became engaged. Mr. Costello posted a picture of the ring on Facebook. “I now realize why I was involved in the tragedy,” he wrote. “It was to meet my best friend, and the love of my life.”

My initial reaction to Costello’s thinking was this: that’s a good attitude, even if it’s false. And I suspect I’m not alone. Many of us probably think there’s something healthy about Costello’s attitude. (It’s not an attitude that I could ever adopt however, because it depends on beliefs I simply don’t have.) But his understanding of why he was involved in the tragedy is actually an answer to the question, “why me?”

If we think it is somewhat more dignified not to ask “Why me?” when tragedy strikes, logically we must then think it is less dignified to do so. But “less dignified” does not mean “undignified”, just as donating $100, while less charitable than donating $200, is not uncharitable. Still, many of us think “Why me?” a question fit for children, akin to their common complaint, “It’s not fair!” On the other hand, we find it heartwarming to hear someone find an answer anyway; we like it when we hear Costello say that he was involved in the Boston tragedy because it was to meet his “best friend, and the love of [his] life.” But these two tendencies give us a paradox: it is good to find answers to a question we’re not supposed to ask.

There are two ways out of this. Our first option is to insist there is a moral failure with asking the question, that we are right to think it childish, that there is in fact something wrong with Costello’s attitude. It should be noted that this attitude does have potentially harmful consequences. We might begin to think that those who suffer somehow deserve their suffering. We might think that those who live on the streets must have done something to deserve their plight, and even those who were born poor and sickly (who cannot have been guilty of anything) are meant to serve as a lesson for their parents. In short, this attitude might make us less compassionate towards those who suffer. And we might try to justify the inequalities and inequities that this world clearly displays. But I don’t think Costello, and the many others like him, would be so callous. They probably simply don’t see what their attitude, writ large, really implies.

We should then take the second option: to not think it is undignified to ask “Why me?” I don’t think we need to ask “why me” in order to make sense of our lives, but, as I said, it’s really hard not to. What kind of person would we be if we faulted someone for asking it?

So there’s no moral failure in asking “Why me”. But there’s no answer either.

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:

Image4

 

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:

Image5

 

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.

 

Image7

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.

Image8

 

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.