It hasn’t been so long since I was in good health that I’ve forgotten how it feels. That’s partly what accounts for the melancholy that I contend with these days. I know what it’s like to have a body that doesn’t stand in the way of shaping a life. It’s simply there, quietly and faithfully doing what is asked of it. A healthy body lends a person a sense of invincibility. Sickness is someone else’s problem, not mine. Other bodies go wrong, not mine.
The greatest threat of serious illness is how it reveals to us our precious hold on life. It reminds us what it means to be human. It reveals our final fate, which is to lose control of our lives. Given my circumstances, what am I to make of the innate fragility of my life? I am not a stoic, who simply accepts that which cannot be controlled. I wrestle not only with doctors and insurance companies, but also with God. Nor do I embrace fatalism. I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I assume it will be the right number of days. That number, however, is not mine to determine.
I was saddened to read about the death of Randy Pausch this week. He was the professor of computer science whose “last lecture” about facing terminal cancer became an Internet sensation. If you haven’t watched his YouTube video, I commend it to you (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo). Pausch understood he was dying, yet celebrated living the life he had always dreamed of. He was a realist, even to the extent that he started his lecture with the CT scans that showed the multiple liver metastases that would eventually kill him. But he was also an optimist. He seemed to find meaning in life by making a supreme effort to cope with his advancing cancer. We should all live so fully in the shadow of death as Randy Pausch.
Regardless of what we’re told by modern medicine, we will all eventually fall ill and die. The veil of invincibility will ultimately fall. As uplifting as Pausch’s life was, there was little hint that he anticipated new life after his departure from this world. Like most people, he didn’t articulate a hope for eternity. The people I know don’t readily talk about how they shape their lives in the face of death, because they think its meaning to be private, and not easily shared or explored with others. As a Christian, I believe I will spend eternity with God. Death is the portal through which I will pass to reach heaven. The confidence I have that death marks a new beginning, and is not the end of my existence, makes it easier to accept the fragility of my life. Acknowledging that my cancer might kill me gives me the capacity to live my life with hope, not fear.
What seems to enable people to endure when their bodies are failing them is not their ability to change their circumstance, but what they make of them. Someone like Randy Pausch possessed a unique suppleness in the face of a loss of power to manage his life. None of us has complete mastery of ourselves and our character, but some people bear trouble with more dignity and grace than others. Each one of us will eventually discover whether we have the inner resources to prevail, whether they be the power of the spirit or simply strength of personality. That which cannot be changed can still be redeemed.