In the previous post “6 Steps to Thinking like Socrates” I outlined my 6 C’s process of thinking through an issue: Clarify, Contemplate, Critique, Counter, Consequences, Conclusion. Whether large or small, simple or complex, thinking in a methodical manner has helped me arrive at a favourable conclusion when I felt lost for answers. There are always exceptions but if an issue has a high emotional charge that’s clouding my judgement, sitting down and writing out the process can shed light on how to proceed.
I’ve used this process for so many years now it’s become like an old wise friend; it’s as if I am talking with Socrates himself. Relationships, friendships, family, work, education, finances and health concerns have all undergone the gauntlet of the 6 C’s.
My most dire concern was a decade ago when I had to decide my choices after being diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease (ALS). I had been given a terminal diagnosis with a life expectancy of three to five years. Keep in mind, ALS has no treatment, no cure and is 100% fatal (but so is life). The question was simple, but the choice difficult.
What should I do with the time left: complete a bucket-list or research for a cure and live as normal?
I would become progressively paralysed, so if I was to do anything then that was the time. I had to use my physical function while it lasted on one or the other. Not both and no second chances. The following example lists the process I went through to arrive at an answer that ultimately, saved my life.
1. Clarify the issue
Superficially, the issue seemed straightforward: fulfil a bucket-list or work hard and possibly survive? But that wasn’t the real issue burning in my heart. Fundamentally, this was about Regret.
If I went on a bucket-list adventure, would I regret not having tried to find a solution after returning weaker or incapacitated?
If I stayed and worked on researching while adapting to live well with my disease, would I regret all the memories I didn’t make, the places I didn’t see and the things I didn’t do?
A conundrum if there ever was one.
2. Contemplate Assumptions
I assumed I would die, but I also had a disbelief in the absurdity of having ALS. I felt an intense pressure from friends and family to beat ALS; others expected me to live it up while I could. The most common thing people said to me was “If there’s someone that can beat it, it’s you.” Nice sentiment, but with it came pressure to succeed. Would I be a pussy if I failed?
I also had a mistrust of medical absolutes. Time and again I saw people defy the odds. Most didn’t. However, I also believed the Will can be the unstoppable force that overcomes the immovable object.
3. Critique the evidence
There was evidence of some ALS sufferers who had reversed, stabilised or survived past their prognosis: Stephen Hawking was the prime example. I also found others, but most of the long-term survivors kept deteriorating to full paralysis—but they survived. Was it luck or choices? I discovered that the survivors were more likely to be actively involved in their survival through alternative therapies and a conservative lifestyle. Conservative living minimised stress, the possibility of infection complications and inevitable acceleration towards death. Any evidence of alternative therapy benefits was anecdotal and individualistic—what worked for some didn’t for others.
Moreover, most of the people I saw deteriorating fast were living as if they would die in the medically allotted time-frame. They had full confidence and hope that the medical system would be their saviour. They went on holidays, rallied for fundraisers to find a “cure” and prepared for the inevitable. Fundamentally, however, there was an implicit premise in their mindset: there was nothing they could do.
I had to acknowledge the possibility that any decision I made could be inconsequential and dependent on luck and fortune. Perhaps my future was already predetermined. Statistically, the numbers were against me surviving irrespective of what I did. Perhaps a cure or treatment would arrive (unlikely). Researchers make many promises to prop grant funding but rarely deliver. They still can’t cure a common cold, let alone cancer or Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and hundreds of other deteriorative diseases despite billions in funding. ALS isn’t going anywhere.
There’s no specific and reproducible result with alternative therapies either, but lots of scams. There are Stem Cell scams in China, India and South America, Faith Healers, potions, formulas and machines all promising to cure ALS. There is no guarantee I’ll succeed if I stay, but there’s also no guarantee I’ll remember a bucket-list with a smile while I’m suffocating to death.
If I go on my bucket list, I’ll probably have a good time (if I don’t think about what’s in store for me), but it’s likely I’ll be too weak and dependent on others to do anything for myself when I return. By going I’m also subconsciously affirming my eventual demise and will not have the “Will” to battle anything on my return. When I’m entombed in my paralysed body I won’t be reminiscing about what I did with my friends and family, I’ll be wondering what I could’ve achieved if I had stayed. I’ll be drowning in regret.
If I stay, research, trial different remedies and prepare to live, there’s a moderate chance I’ll succeed at some level. By choosing to stay, I’m affirming life; I’m affirming my Will to fight fate; I’m affirming a reason to live. If I succeed and live, I can do other things and go to other places. If I try and fail, I won’t regret not having completed a bucket-list of fleeting memories. Rather, I’ll feel I did my utmost despite the odds. I died on my feet instead of begging on my knees. Those around me will remember there’s no regret for the effort. In fact, whether I succeed or fail, I’ll have no regret in not fulfilling a bucket-list.
The conclusion is clear: I need to stay and fight for myself. I need to express what’s true for me, not what a doctor believes on statistics. I may very well be one of those unfortunate statistics on the thick end of the bell curve, but like those survivors that bucked the trend, I may be the exception too. Either way, I’ll never regret fighting for my life, but I will regret giving it up on a doctor’s prognosis. I’ll stay.
I did do a few things that I’d been dreaming for a while. I snowboarded and trained with an Aikido master in Canada, I climbed Ayers Rock and slept in the desert under a sky sparkling with millions of visible stars. I stayed awake for as long as I could and I swear to you, I could feel the Earth rotate. When I returned my mind was clear on the goal ahead: survive! I won’t lie and tell you there aren’t places I wished to visit and more things I longed to do, but I’ve never regretted sticking through the Socratic method’s conclusion.
I’ve managed to live to my 12th year and achieve a lot along the way. Each achievement is both a means and an end unto itself. These achievements bring me peace, fulfil me intellectually and motivate me to keep going. All because I used a 2,500-year-old process of questioning by one of the greatest minds in human history. I sincerely hope the Socratic method brings you that kind of success.