When Lee Atwater conducted dirty trick politics to denounce the Democratic Party, he reveled in slander and controversy. When he came down with brain cancer, he realized the meanness that he had inflicted on many good people. To his credit, he recanted his stories and apologized to many of those whose lives and careers he had damaged.
I had my own reckoning with Death a little over a decade ago. I chose to ignore a growing lump in my neck for a couple of years until it suddenly began growing quickly and spreading through my lymph glands. I lived a healthy life, so I assumed that no such thing could ever happen to me. My physicians noted that my positive attitude was a form of denial.
Cancer doesn’t have anything to teach except how to endure unbearable pain. But as my body shrank from malnutrition, I met the real teacher—the one that some call the Grim Reaper.
I conducted a few projects with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross some years ago. In her famous book On Death and Dying she identified stages of dying as denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. It was one thing to hear about them as a healthy young man, sitting through the deaths of others, and another thing altogether to watch my own life dissolving through those conditions.
When death appears imminent, the mind ultimately accepts the end of every belief, idea, opinion, and attitude. First you get an inkling of how much you don’t know, and you begin to fathom how much you will never know. As a young psychologist, I figured that I had figured out a lot of things. That was an illusion.
When I pulled through, I had a new way of viewing life. I loved sweeter and I cared more deeply for each moment and each person I met. My friends and family didn’t cotton to the new me, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. When you finally see, you can’t shake the vision or pretend to be anything or anyone--at least that how it went for me. Now I live with a certain appreciation for the randomness and marvelousness of this planet that we share.
Tim McGraw sings a lovely song about a man who was diagnosed with a deadly disease. His protagonist then went skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing, and became the friend a friend would like to have. He learned to forgive, to live deeper and love sweeter. The lyrics end with this sentence “I hope some day you get the chance to live like your were dying.”
That is my sentiment exactly.