Monday, July 28, 2008

So many, so many

Former White House press secretary Tony Snow's recent death from a recurrence of colon cancer saddened me. Although he passionately defended an administration I believe is indefensible, I couldn't help admiring the intelligence and brio he brought to his work. I also admired the fact that he took on the White House job, the most difficult of his career, after his first bout with colon cancer. Despite having to use a colostomy bag and the hovering threat of recurrence, he dove into an almost impossible job with verve and confidence. He also had wise things to say about illness, to wit:

The art of being sick is not the art of getting well. Some cancer patients recover; some don't. But the ordeal of facing your mortality and feeling your frailty sharpens your perspective about life.You appreciate little things more ferociously. You grasp the mystical power of love. You feel the gravitational pull of faith. And you realize you have received a unique gift -- a field of vision others don't have about the power of hope and the limits of fear; a firm set of convictions about what really matters and what does not. You also feel obliged to share these insights -- the most important of which is this: There are things worse than illness -- for instance, soullessness.
Thank you PB for passing this on to me. Let's be ferocious in our appreciation; measured in our fears; wise about what really matters.
Postscript: I'm ruining my momentum here, but I can't help grumbling over the lede of the otherwise excellent Post obit linked above: "...died yesterday at Georgetown University Hospital after losing a high-profile battle with cancer" (emphasis mine). 

Besides being a lazy cliche, this phrase strikes me as factually wrong: you don't "lose" your battle with cancer -- or "win" it. Not physically, anyway. You persevere as best you can, you find the best available medical treatments, but in the end, the disease runs its course toward death or life. You may as well battle the Pacific surf. We are frail in the face of this momentum, whether the movement is random, as I tend to believe, or part of an inscrutable design. The fight, then, is not against death, but for life. How can we choose to live well for whatever time we have left? 

That battle, of course, isn't reserved for the ill; we are all facing it, whether consciously or not. As a collaborator said about computer scientist Randy Pausch, who just died of pancreatic cancer but inadvertently became famous for the brave and philosophical way he lived with the disease: "His fate is ours, sped up."

I talk a little more about the problems with cancer metaphors here. 

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