Astronaut Piers Sellers recently published an article in The New York Times Sunday Review section. I came across it on Twitter, seized by its audacious title: “Cancer and Climate Change”. With an open mind, I learned that the 60-year-old NASA scientist recently diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer wants nothing more than to spend his remaining days back at work.
I was once told to be open-minded, but not so much so that my brain falls out of my head. This time, it did. I was shocked to see that Sellers could not find something else to do with his golden years, like conquering Mount Everest or enjoying a permanent spot at a beach resort. I found this bloodlessly macabre. In fact, I closed the tab before I even finished the article.
I was appalled by Sellers’ end-of-life decision because it counters what many others (and myself) have in mind for our own retirements, mostly including checking off those selfish, self-indulgent, and pathetic items on our to-do list before we die. In fact, Dr. Oliver W. Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author, published a series of farewell articles in the NYT and his memoir On the Move when his melanoma metastasized into his liver in 2015. He said “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at News Hour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” Of course, this is not to say that Dr. Sacks is selfish or pathetic. He chose intimacy with his lover and readers instead of taking a stand on global issues when he knew his expiration date was soon to come. Isn’t it only normal for terminal patients to take their remaining time to enjoy the limited clarity of mind which comes with their condition to better face the unfair early death sentence put on their lives?
Seller’s altruistic reasoning and plan on what to do before death shames mine into inferiority. In the next few days, I couldn’t shake his article from my mind, and so decided to resolve my feelings. At the end of the article Sellers reveals his reason for going back to work. He is not just another faceless member of NASA’s staff. Rather, he was an astronaut who walked in space above the Earth and floated alongside the International Space Station. He did what many can only dream of doing, and it was continuing to live this dream which gave him the reason he needed to go back to work, even with cancer.
Like many of you who grind day in and day out for a minimum wage paycheck to survive, you bet that when I face death I will spend all of my time and money doing things I never got to indulge in: visiting foreign lands, skydiving, or just simply being lazy. I cannot even attempt to image what a fantastic life Sellers has lived; however, by finishing his article, I do seem to understand why he chose going back to work as the only item on his bucket list. His life experiences have trumped anything my supposedly boundless brain could ever achieve. Murakami liked to consider people as onions; he said if you peel people layers after layers, what’s left is pride. Reading Seller’s article is like dicing an onion; that burning sensation in your eyes is unmistakable.
I am not writing to condescend anyone’s choices or decisions, but rather to ask the question of how we should live our lives, even without immediate death sentences chasing our rears. Should we push our limits and expand our boundaries to the point that we have little happiness, or should we just be normal and even mediocre so that we can enjoy the present and not worry about how we will become the next Bill Gates or Charles Darwin? Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year old neurosurgeon, died of metastasized lung cancer. Just before his passing he wrote When Breath Becomes Air in which he said that he postponed learning how to live while he was becoming a neurosurgeon. When he finally stopped striving forward, he ended up spending the last moments of his life learning how to die.
I understand the yearning to achieve success, and surely everyone wants a piece of that pie. The question to ask yourself is: “what are you willing to forfeit and sacrifice for it?” It is not simply about losing a few hours of sleep, but your sanity. Often, our choices can lead us to the brink of collapse.
Everybody loves poignant tales in which benign madness precipitates success. Van Gogh’s madness devastated his life and killed him, but it allowed him to see colors unlike anybody else before and after him. Depression made Sylvia Plath stick her head inside a carbon monoxide-filled oven, but one can also argue that her sensitivity granted her the ability to write some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry in contemporary literature. By the same token, alcoholism took Eleanora Fagan’ s ( Billie Holiday)’s liver and life, but she claimed alcohol loosened her up to produce some of the best of jazz vocals in the recording business.
Today, everyone is looking for this form of ephemeral and intelligent madness so that we too can become brilliant. Some of us work 24/7/365 to convince this genius to visit us; others cheat their way through drugs, seeking out-of-body experiences. We no longer take care of ourselves, nor do we pay attention to our surroundings, where love, content, and satisfaction all lie.
The question I have is why we all want to be the greatest when we know that there can often only be one in most disciplines. The Earth revolves around its axis with or without you, no matter who you are. If you don’t believe me, recall Albert Einstein, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandel, and more. People often forget that these great figures all stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said. So I ask you: where would that shoulder be if we all want to be the ones standing on top of it?
I am not dissuading anyone from trying to achieve the best in themselves. I am simply saying that to enjoy your life while you have it you must pursue realistic goals, not egocentric ones. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.” So do try hard, but also do remember what Charles Dickens said in Great Expectations, “If you can’t get to be uncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked. So don’t tell no more on ’em, Pip, and live well and die happy.”