Wisdom from the dying for life in land of the living

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 31, 2011

The wise have long understood the importance of embracing our mortality for making the best of our brief days among the living. About this, there are three recent voices I’d like to celebrate – witnesses who faced death – and a fourth of a young man who once wished he were dead.

Jack Layton, 1950–2011, New Democratic Party leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, died a week ago Monday. His state funeral in Toronto last Saturday stirred the hopes and imaginations of the entire nation.

In a day when many lament that, if only they had a perfect life, think of all the good they could do, Jack was quite pragmatic, as his son, Michael, noted in his eulogy. (To view the five-minute YouTube video of Mike’s eulogy, click here.)

Michael recalled the time Jack took him sailing. “The wind had stopped completely, and we found ourselves stranded in the middle of the lake – perfect stillness, you could almost hear the fish breathing,” Michael said. Jack tried every sailing skill he knew, till taking to the oars, “we arduously rowed ourselves back ashore.”

The lesson for the living? “You can wait forever for perfect conditions,” Jack had said, “or you can make the best of what you’ve got now.”

The second voice is Randy Pausch, 1960–2008, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only months to live.

He gained worldwide attention in 2007 with his stirring presentation, “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” (To view the 76-minute YouTube video of his lecture, click here. His co-authored book, The Last Lecture, is available on Amazon.com.)

There are some things in life we cannot change, he said; we just have to decide how we’re going to respond. “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

Randy chose to respond with a positive attitude.

“I’m dying and I’m having fun,” he said. “And I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it.”

He did this by sharing his childhood dreams and enabling the dreams of others. And he did it with gratitude, integrity, humility and determination.

In reality, however, his last lecture was not about achieving one’s dreams at all, he concluded. “It’s about how to lead your life.”

Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder and current chairman of the board of Apple Inc., just stepped down from his powerful position as CEO of the computer giant he built into one of the world’s most valuable companies. He’d been struggling with health issues for some time and no longer had the energy to fill both roles.

In 2005 the university dropout delivered the commencement address at Stanford University. (To view the 15-minute YouTube video of Steve’s address, click here.)

At the time, he had just come through the scare of being diagnosed with what, at first, appeared to be inoperable pancreatic cancer – a death sentence. (As things turned out, it proved to be a kind of cancer that did respond to surgery, after all.)

Reflecting on his belief that he’d be dead soon was the most important tool he’d ever encountered for helping him make the big choices in life, he said.

“Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment of failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

And what was “truly important” for Steve? To “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

The final voice is that of 28-year-old Nick Vujicic (pronounced voo-yee-chich), an Australian motivational speaker born without arms and legs who, despairing over his limitations, had contemplated suicide at the age of eight.

The most recent of several readers to alert me to Nick’s story is Bearspaw-area resident Brayden Paul, 14. Brayden pointed me to an inspiring video of a talk Nick gave to a group of young people. (To view the four-minute video of Nick’s talk, click here.)

In spite of the cards life dealt him, Nick ultimately chose to play his hand, too, with a positive attitude. He swims, boats, plays sports, and is all-in-all one of the most compelling public speakers I’ve ever encountered.

He follows four guiding principles: be thankful, be patient, dream big, and never give up.

“There were times when I sort of looked at my life and thinking, well, I can’t do this and I can’t do that,” he says. “And you keep on concentrating on the things that you wished you had or the things that you wish you didn’t have. And you sort of forget what you do have.”

Nick’s words bring me full-circle back to the important lesson Jack Layton taught his son that day when becalmed while out sailing: Rather than wallowing in self-pity when life isn’t as perfect as you’d like, take to the oars and “make the best of what you’ve got now.”

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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