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.



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. ↩︎

On being calm about death

Near the end of the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise Jedi elder, smiles just before closing his eyes and allowing himself to be struck down by the evil Darth Vader. His face reveals a moment of calmness and acceptance at the moment of death.

Something similar happens at the end of Batman Begins. Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman’s evil but wise mentor, closes his eyes and meditates when his death becomes unavoidable.

The lesson seems to be that the wise are calm at the moment of death. This is not a new idea created and perpetuated by cool Hollywood movies. It is actually rather old.

In the Apology, Plato describes Socrates as accepting his punishment upon death by willingly drinking the poisonous hemlock he is given. And it’s not just in his willingness to die that Socrates is calm, but also in the process of dying. According to Plato, Socrates is aware of how his body dies moment by moment: his limbs go numb first, followed by his torso, and last of all his voice, from which his wise words emanate.

But this description of his death is probably a lie. Hemlock does not make one go numb. Instead it makes one vomit and tremble, among other symptoms, resulting in a painful death. Now one philosopher has gone to great lengths to argue that Plato’s description was, in fact, accurate. But what is interesting to me is why this is an important matter at all, why is calmly dying so important to our image of wisdom?

Let us compare our reaction to Plato’s account of Socrates’ death to our reaction to someone losing their mental and voluntary faculties long before they die. We notice a difference. The first situation inspires awe and respect, and the second, sadness and pity.

I think we should be sceptical of these images of wisdom. Dementia is real and common among the elderly as are serious changes in one’s personality. Someone who was wise and calm in life may turn into a raving and incoherent lunatic before they die. And because one is inextricably subject to the caprices of one’s physical body (including the brain), the moments of one’s death may conceal and obscure rather than reveal who one really was.

But Socrates’ calmness regarding death goes beyond just the physical manifestations during his last minute. It’s present in what he says about death:

since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good….. I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.

This is the logic of his thinking, one couched in terms of hope. The idea seems to be that if we do not know for certain that X will be bad, then there is a possibility that X is good, and thus we should not fear X. And to think that we can know for certain that X is bad is to think we know more than we actually do, which is the hallmark characteristic of a lack of wisdom. Thus, being wise means not fearing death.

This argument is flawed. For one, it is too strong. If we believe that certainty in most knowledge is impossible, as many of us do, it means that we should never be afraid of anything at all, even if it means falling into a pit of lava. We may be fairly confident that it will be very painful, but we cannot know that for certain, for random miraculous things can happen during our descent into the pit.

And we can also question the very premise of this argument — that we should hope when there is a possibility of a good outcome and only fear when there is a certainty of a bad outcome. But why? Why not fear when there is a possibility of a bad outcome, and only hope when there is a certainty of a good outcome?

But more importantly, Socrates’s way of thinking is entirely unBayesian. In particular, it’s far too binary and too extreme. According to Socrates, we should hope when there is even the smallest possibility of a good outcome, and we should fear only when there is certainty of a bad outcome. But this precludes the possibility of having mixtures of fear and hope. Can I not say that I hope 30% that this will be good, but 70% fear that this will be bad? Maybe this doesn’t make sense of our psychology, for it does not describe how we actually think — maybe we cannot have both emotions of fear and hope simultaneously. But there is no logical error in thinking that A is 30% likely, and not-A is 70% likely. In fact, it is more nuanced and precise than simply saying that something is “possible” or “a good chance”. And when we think this way, in terms of assigning likelihoods, how do we conceive of hope and fear? I’m not sure, but we have to abandon Socrates’s approach.

The point of all this is really to ask why we should be calm at the moment of death. For Socrates, it made sense to be hopeful, because one doesn’t know what will happen and what happen might be good. That argument, as I’ve tried to show, is rather ineffective.

There is at least one other reason for Socrates’s calmness. For instance, he didn’t just believe that we did not know that death would be bad, but he believed that the death of the body did not mean the death of the person. In short, he believed in the immortality of the soul. And so did Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars. I’m not sure about Ra’s Al Ghul, but most depictions of mystical wise men portray a faith in the afterlife, and this faith grounds their calmness. I’m not going to argue for this, but I don’t think an afterlife is likely.

So are there any other reasons to be calm at death? One reason might be that it is somehow inherent in wisdom to be calm. But this is a terrible answer. If there are good reasons to be calm, then it is wise to be calm. And if there are no good reasons to be calm, then it is not wise to be calm. Wisdom is not something that exists apart from being able to have and act for good reasons. In other words, to say that one reason to be calm at death is that it is wise to be so is to say very little.

I can only think of one good reason to be calm at death, but the reason is not so strong that if you fail to be calm at death you would somehow lose the title of being wise. The one good reason I can think of is this: it’s generally more pleasant to be calm than to be agitated, and so this is probably true at the moment of dying too. That’s it. It’s a pretty weak claim.

So it’s a good idea to be calm at death, but it’s no big deal if you’re not.


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. 

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.


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:


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:



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:



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.



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.



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.



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.