“What would you do if tomorrow you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?”
We’ve all had a hypothetical question like that thrust in front of us at one point or another. It’s supposed to make us consider how different life might be, how drastic a change we might make if we were suddenly told there was a limit to our time here and that limit was no longer over the horizon but within sight.
It’s a ridiculous thought exercise, not only because every human being already has a terminal diagnosis, but also because living with cancer does not have to ruin your life or even necessarily upend it.
Jonathan Church has brain cancer. He wrote about it in an incredibly powerful article on Quillette about how his study of Stoicism had long prepared him to cope with his mortality—be it a brain cancer diagnosis or otherwise. In a follow-up interview with Jonathan for DailyStoic.com, we wondered if there were any specific practices or daily exercises that help Jonathan continue to live a happy and productive life and not succumb to anxiety and depression:
No lessons, practices, or rituals. No magic trick. No device to be employed in a duel to the death with death itself. Just continuing to read, think, write, and put things into perspective…
I long ago acquiesced to the inevitability of death. I have been thinking about mortality for a long time, not out of morbid interest, but as an outgrowth of philosophical curiosity. That said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that there is no preparation for the moment when the grip of death is upon you. It will be terrible. No avoiding that. But it’s beyond my control. Best to focus only on optimizing the time I have, rather than wasting it worrying about how to avoid the inevitable, or how to assuage the terror of the moment when it’s upon you. Put off depression and anxiety until that one brief instant when death is upon you, not the life you have to live between now and then.
No seismic revelation, no life-altering changes then, no grand gestures needed. Just the kind of reading and thinking and hard work on one’s self that we should all be doing, whether we’ve staggered out of a doctor’s office with terrible news or not. Marcus Aurelius said, "Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you're alive and able, be good."
That’s it. Today and every day.
It’s hard to do, but we have to try.