Sunday, July 02, 2006

The meaning of life

Having cancer is like coming to a roadblock with a flashing sign that says “mortality.” Although I should get through this and be fine, nonetheless my life expectancy has taken a hit, and my chances of developing metastatic cancer have gone from less than 1% to 20%. So I have to start thinking about what I want from my life, knowing that I can’t be as comfortable as most people that I have years and years and easy years stretched out in front of me.

Let’s say that I only have 5 more years to live (who knows?). How do I want to live them? Well, two answers: I want to be sure I don’t take for granted the people in my life, and I want to be sure I can say, at the end, “I lived as fully as I could.”

It’s an awkward time to be facing this question. I’m halfway through the trek to tenure, and this is the time when most people at my stage forego having lives to invest in their careers. It’s hard to get tenure without that single-minded devotion, and I could live for another 40 years or more, and if so I will want to establish a solid career. But if I died in 5 years, and all I’d done with my time was sit in front of the computer—well, that would be fodder for regret!

What’s interesting about this, to me, is that this is the calculus that we should all engage in anyway. Having cancer has changed my odds, but it hasn’t touched the fundamental uncertainty that we all have about how long our lives will last, nor the truth that any of us could die, for any number of reasons, at any time. My tenure clock answer today—which should be the exact same answer that I gave last year—is that I will work hard, and strive, and believe that there is a future in which I’ll be well served by seeking tenure. I’ll spend a substantial amount of time working (and thank the stars that I’ve chosen work I find enriching and inherently rewarding). But I’ll also take time off, I won’t kill myself on projects I find soulless, I’ll play volleyball and go on vacations and read books for pleasure. And, with resolution #1 in mind, I’ll spend plenty of my time with people I enjoy—in the past, this was the first to go, when I had “work to do.” Now that response can’t be so knee-jerk.

Everyone faces the same conundrum, really—it’s just staring me down with a bit more intensity. To what extent do we live for the future, and to what extent do we live for today? In fact, we have to do both. It may suck to be reminded of that—but at least I have plenty of time to do something with the reminder.


Upstater said...

You are so awesome and brave. Not to mention you have a great husband.

rebecca flowers schamess said...

Jen O, you put me in the mind of one of my favorite Buddhist gurus, Tara Brach. She has a bunch of great audio here: that you can download to your computer or (bettah yet) to your iPod. Her whole thing is about accepting the moments we're given, one at a time, no matter if they're good ones or bad ones, right here and now. (Plus her voice is so soothing, it just puts me right to sleep....) I got STEFFI meditating (or I like to think it was because of *me*), and I'm going to send Sarah some CD's -- let me know if you want some, too...