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.

 

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.