Friday, April 11, 2008

Want to Live Longer? Earn It.

I just read this story in The New Yorker magazine about the ultimate competition in life: longevity. Our lives are a series of competitions - what schools we get into, what job titles we have, how much money we make, how much money our kids make, who has the biggest house, the fastest car, the sexiest trophy wife. And then as we near the end of our lives, we can proudly proclaim, "I'll be turning 80 this year and look at me still swinging a golf club!"

It raised some strong emotions in me, for obvious reasons. I'm 41 and have late-stage cancer. Statistically, I won't be alive in a few months' time. When I hear about 80-year-olds wanting to live longer, I can't help feeling these people are just plain greedy.

I haven't done anything worth putting in an obituary during my 41 years on this Earth. I was a schoolteacher but never won a "Best Teacher" award. I was a journalist but never won a Pulitzer. I didn't save anyone's life. I didn't invent anything or create anything. Unless you count my kids. And anybody with healthy ovaries and a willing partner can do that.

So why do I deserve to live another ten or twenty years? I'd have to say that I don't. But my kids deserve to have a mother for another ten or twenty years. They deserve to have me live for them.

I think people who want to live longer should earn it. Don't just ask for more time if you're not going to do something with that time. I don't think turning 80 and still having the strength to finish a round of golf is something to aspire to.

I don't mean we have to win a Nobel Prize or give up our place on Earth to someone else who will. There are other ways to earn the right to live. Yes, that's what I meant. We all have the right to live. Just like animals. But let's be better than animals. Let's strive to do something with our lives so that we actually deserve to have that right. It could be as grand as finding the cure for cancer. Or it could be as simple as bringing joy and laughter to somebody suffering from cancer.

I have a friend who's had an impressive career. She was the executive producer of two of the top-rated TV news shows in the U.S. There will be no shortage of impressive labels to put into her obituary. But I don't think she earned her right to live with those high-profile jobs. I think she did it with what she's doing now, working for an NGO that's training the poorest and most hopeless people in Africa and Asia to feed and heal themselves. The work she's doing now is saving lives. One of her equals hundreds, maybe thousands of people who might otherwise be dead. That's simple math. She's earned her right to be here.

I know a number of people in their seventies and eighties who, like me, are not going to win a Nobel Prize. But they've taught me and their own children and grandchildren lessons in life that can't be measured in dollars, and they've brought me and others joy and happiness that can't be tallied up in a column. There are no awards or prizes for the value they've brought to my life or the lives of others they've touched. But they've earned their right to be here.

Given that I might have months to live, I'm under a bit of pressure to earn whatever time I have left. But I'd like to think I'm doing it now. I'm doing it by staying strong and positive for my family and friends. I'm doing it by not succumbing to sorrow or pity for myself. I'm doing it by bringing as much joy and laughter as I can to the people who care about me in whatever small ways I can find. And, in the end, I hope I earn my remaining months or years of life by being an example to my family, friends, and most important, to my children. Because frankly, it's a little late for me to be gunning for that Pulitzer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Shin. You may not know that infact you are such a brave and inspiration woman. I believed many have found strength from your example. Yes, we do our part and we do our very best. I trust the Higher Power and we are here for a purpose. You are doing a good job. Love, Yvonne.

Mylinh said...

Dear Shin,
I wrote this post about you a few weeks ago on my own blog, because you have made a difference to me, in the short time that I have known you. Last weekend, I was so happy to have our family spent some time with your children, Toby and Josie. Josie reminds me so much of you, and you can be so proud of both of them. As a parent, one should be so lucky to ever lay claim that their children are their greatest creation. All mothers I think live for that realisation, for that day when their greatest legacy are their children. You can definitely lay claim to that, and you have more than earned your place in our hearts. Hang in there Shin. Stay strong and if you can't be strong all the time, that's ok too. Thank you for being you, and for being so brave, not only for you but for us on this journey. You inspire me every day.

Lots of love, M

Anonymous said...

Who said that you had to win an award to have touched or changed people's lives? Teachers never know how influential they were in a child's life. Perhaps you were the one teacher who lit the fire under a student, sending him down a career path he would not otherwise have chosen. Perhaps a story you wrote made a major life change more bearable for a reader, or changed the way he perceived the world. Perhaps the gifts you have given your children are those which will enable them to contribute to society in a way you could never imagine.
We should all strive to be better human beings, and this journey of yours has had a profound effect on many of us. Reread the comments all the way through your blog. How can you possibly think that you haven't done enough?

Shin said...


I agree. I don't need any awards to show me I've had a positive influence on people in my life. I also don't need hate letters to show me I've hurt some people in my life. I'm pretty smart when it comes to knowing myself. (Modesty is not one of my virtues, for example.)

I wrote this Blog entry because of the New Yorker article and the focus on living longer just for the sake of living longer. I think time is so valuable and should not be treated carelessly. We should do something with it, not just HAVE it.

And doing something doesn't mean saving the world necessarily. To me, it means bringing some happiness to the people around me and doing whatever I can to make my teeny corner of the world a little bit better than it was before I came along. Sometimes, it means as little as not hurting anyone. But even that can be tough at times.

Tony said...

I noticed another blog linking to that article. Interestingly, that blog focused on Kinsley facing mortality without religion - which has been another interesting topic you have talked about.

To me, what your blog post highlights is the different things that are important to people in the face of mortality. I think to some people leaving a mark becomes more important and to others it becomes less important. To some, that empire they built, or the Noble prize they won, or the people they saved is more important as it will be the legacy that will survive them.

For me, I thought it was another comment you've made that gets closer to my feelings as I think about mortality. You wrote on Leroy Siever's blog that you were doing everything you can to increase your longevity so that your kids will remember you. Not for any particular thing, but just to be remembered as their mother. I thought this view you had was much more profound than your "earn it" view. I think it rang true to others as well. Leroy quoted you in his documentary with Ted Koppel, and it came up again when he did that program about cancer with Koppel and Elizabeth Edwards. It was a simple but profound thought that leaves a lump in my throat. A legacy of famous books written, or accomplishments in high finance or great achievements for the peace corps, are all things I can admire but doesn't really bring out much emotion in me.

Tony said...

hmm, that link doesn't seem to work. Let me try again.

leighbee said...

Just to add my little piece........ ALL time is precious..........I am not sure what the smallest measurement of time is called but how I wish I could have just one of "those" with my daughter again........

HOWEVER........No one EVER promised me she was "forever" no one EVER proved the "three score years and ten" theory and so at the point I guess we should NEVER assume we "deserve" longevity. The one thing I DO KNOW, is that I cherish EVERY moment of her life, memories are important but can be as painful as they are enjoyable (sometimes more so). I think back upon her short 15 months and 5 days with a sense of joy - I hope she thought me as precious as I do her.......... I try to celebrate her mere existence whenever possible and NEVER deny her. I think the difficult situation here for you is that whilst you are SO brave you DO suffer so much and there is little anyone can do to ease that for you (certainly in the physical sense). I am grateful to whoever wrote the book of life that my daughter didn't suffer, unlike so many others throughout the world..........yourself and your family included. For that I will be eternally thankful. I guess these situations are all part of lifes big tapestry........Love you so much.........Embrace your life......always be you.......xxxx

Anonymous said...

You have too saved a life. I bet you have. Because of finding out about your cancer tons of us had mammograms and physicals. My pal Annie had a full physical, and then wondered about her parents, who never had them, so she forced them to go, and her father's prostate cancer was discovered. And now he's fine. Alison