Stephen Hawking died today,” she said.
“No!” I replied impulsively. Even as I write this sentence, my eyes moisten and blur my vision. How can this be? Why do I feel such sadness for a man I‘ve never met? On contemplation, I’ve recognised two reasons. First, he was not only a great mind in Astrophysics and instrumental in bringing complex concepts to the public with his book A Brief History of Time. However, what made him more impressive is that he wrote most of his work while fully paralysed with ALS. Which brings me to the second point. He survived for over 50 years past his two-year survival prognosis. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is at the essence of my sadness; and I’m sure for many other people with ALS.
His unusually long survival and accomplishments served as a striking example of beating the odds. After all, if he could do it then why couldn’t I?
I believed I could survive. Not just because I hoped this disease to be an absurd mistake, but also because of other survivors; such as Stephen Hawking. Whether his (and others) survival is pure luck or a combination of external care and internal purpose is irrelevant. If we can have one example that bucks the trend—one astonishing survivor in a plethora of deaths—then hope reigns supreme.
Rationalists like to show the absurdity of hope against such low statistical odds of success.
Yet, one has to ask: “What about the people who didn’t give up what they were accomplishing, yet, survived?”
• Imagine that Stephen Hawking stopped working because of his doctor’s two-year prognosis.
• Imagine he gave up trying.
• Imagine he resolved that the irritation of writing through a machine was too much effort.
• Now imagine if he had given all that up, and he survived for 50 years anyway.
Would he be as fulfilled? Probably not.
Would he be festering in regret and bitterness? I think so.
A man without a purpose is no man at all. He’s the walking dead. Passing the time, hungry for some distractions to fill the void he feels inside.
Stephen Hawking showed through example that personal purpose overcomes the most debilitating physical obstacles. To have something we care for and are curious about fuels our will to keep moving forward. The disease or misfortune becomes a side-note to our mission. ALS meant that things would take longer and feel harder, but inevitably it just meant that he’d have to savour the journey at a deeper level. Being paralysed with ALS means options are severely limited. It also means that a venture is going to be more difficult and demanding. However, there’s a hidden gift.
A debilitating disease forces you to take your time and delve deeper. If you have a genuine passion for a subject, then your condition can be a blessing in disguise. You can learn and know a subject at a more profound level than if you were in full health.
I’d give everything I have to have my body back—or even just my hands. However, life is what it is. If you have a passion or are yet to find one, then this is your time to prove what you’re about. Dr Hawking loved astrophysics when he was healthy, and the proof it wasn’t a fickle interest became clear with his persistence through deterioration.
- What are you passionate about enough to learn, study and be an expert at?
- Are you hiding behind your disease as an excuse to mask your self-pity?
- Are you going to sit there and let your lack of imagination determine your fate?
- Will you join the few who care enough about something to keep going despite the setback?
- Will you serve as an example of fortitude and tenacity for your family, friends and associates?
Prove to yourself that you’re more than this disease/affliction/problem. Prove to yourself that you’re not just a consumer. You’re a creator, a producer—a force of nature.
You are not this disease any more than Hawking was ALS. He was an astrophysicist, and he happened to have ALS. If he had hepatitis, HIV, arthritis, migraines or Parkinson’s, would it have made a difference? Of course not.
Remember, the illness just forces you to be honest and clear about what you truly cherish. The condition does this by making it so hard to do anything that you only have the energy for a small selection of profound interests. What is yours?
What is it you’d still think about even as you’re dying? If you don’t know, then you’re missing on an endless well of joy and sustenance. I urge you for your sake and those that will benefit from you finding what that is.
I can guarantee you that I’ll be thinking about philosophy. I’ll still be asking: ‘Did I live well? Did I live a virtuous life? Did I live to my potential?’
How do I know? Recently, I thought I was having a heart attack. While I was fighting to not lose consciousness I can tell you unequivocally that I felt serene as those questions flashed through my mind. I’ll go further on this in another post.
If you have a terminal disease, don’t presuppose you’ll die by your doctor’s timeframe. He’s given you a statistical average. However, are you certain you’re not the outlier that will survive regardless? Only fate knows your lifespan. Until you’re taking your last breath, live as if you were going to survive. Find out what you love despite your disease, because who knows, you may have another 50 years.