If you were Elizabeth Edwards; if your raison d’etre were to change the world by electing former Sen. John Edwards president of the United States; if you discovered you had Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer; what would you do?
It’s always easier to focus the debate on someone else, but let’s say you’ve just learned that your time on this planet will now be measured in statistics and probabilities, and the data are grim: A very small percentage of people with (your disease here) live a decade. Would you continue your work and live the same way you always have?
Maybe you would change your life dramatically to do what you’ve been postponing for years. Or maybe, as most people fear, you would fold up your tent, get inside, and wait to die.
“Elizabeth Edwards is setting a powerful example for a lot of people,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said a day before announcing his own surgery for what turned out to be the most advanced form of colon cancer. Snow immediately decided to take time off and devote all his energies to fighting the disease. Very few people actually fold up their tents in the face of tragic news. Given the choice of life or death, we choose life.
A close friend called a few years ago to tell me she had developed a lump in her breast that was probably cancerous. She had already had cancer in the other breast and now was facing a double mastectomy. “I don’t think I can go on like this, it’s just too difficult and the future is so bleak,” she said. I sat quietly for a few moments, knowing better than to try to talk her out of that early anger and despair. And then she asked if I knew a good doctor. We may rail against the injustice, we may face the unknown with confusion or dread, but given the choice, we choose life.
Most healthy people I know don’t consciously choose life. They tell themselves the life they are living is in preparation for a future of less stress and more happiness. A man with terminal cancer once said to me: “I feel like my whole life has been a dress rehearsal for this moment.” When not forced to choose between life and death, most people simply don’t. Their real lives, after all, are just around the corner.
So what would you do if there were no corner?
Many have told me that, in the moment of crisis, something opened up inside of them. Of course they felt fear and confusion, but life and its meaning became clearer. When John and Elizabeth Edwards lost their son in a car accident 11 years ago, he gave up a lucrative law practice to run for the Senate because, he said, he wanted to devote his life to making the world a better place.
Several years after I became a quadriplegic, I accepted that my time on this earth would be much shorter than I would like it to be. I decided that, in the time that remained, I would do whatever I could to make the world more compassionate for my grandson, indeed for all children of the future. Then, two years ago, I faced surgery from which, realistically, I might not have awakened. In the silence of my hospital room only hours before the operation, I wondered: If I survive this surgery, would I like to do anything differently with my life?
For me, the answer was no. I felt I was living a meaningful life that brought me joy and humility, and I would be deeply grateful if I could simply continue living as I had. In the moment I realized how fragile life is, I also realized how precious it is.
Many years ago, I took a course on mindfulness meditation. A fellow student had metastatic breast cancer. When we chatted at the end of the program, I asked her why, given all the things she could do, had she signed up for a course like this? “All my life, wherever I was,” she said with a warm, gentle smile, “I was always somewhere else. In the time I have left, I want to be where I am.”
I imagine Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow have a pretty clear sense of what their lives are about. So in the face of limited time, what did they do? They chose life.
What would you do?