“Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.” Saul Bellow

Portrait of my brother soon after his cancerous tumor was removed.

Lapidary maxims about lugubrious life events can be far removed from the actual experience of adversity. These phrases sound good and fancy, downright poetic at times, but are often hard to internalize without first-hand experience.

No matter how truthful these maxims are their utility seems to expire with the approaching punctuation of the period and the reality of hardship returns. I hope to explain my title ‘Give Yourself Cancer’ and bridge the gap between an empty platitude and a maxim to internalize.

Our culture is saturated with these expressions: carpe diem, yolo (you only live once), time heals all wounds, this too shall pass, everything happens for a reason, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger . . .

I have lived long enough to see some cliches bear out their truth, but they rarely offer solace if you’re on the receiving end.

Paradoxically, these admonitions are paired with our aversion to death. We want to ‘seize the day’ while ignoring life’s twin Death. We constantly search for the modern fountain of youth be it plastic surgery or simply dyeing gray hairs. Eye contact is averted when speaking about death, if we do at all, and a tenseness unknowingly engages our face.

We hold onto an unspoken hope that an exception will be made for our death or loved one’s and speaking about it might put this exception in jeopardy. This article discusses some reasons why we have alienated ourselves from death.

I have always been interested in mortality. I thought I could use this interest to my advantage when I was a finalist for the Watson Fellowship. I proposed to spend their $25,000 studying treehouses around the world. Dwelling in a living organism literally roots you to the reality of death. Treehouses have an expiration date equal to their host and provides a daily reminder of our own death. However clever I thought that pitch (no pun intended) was I did not get the fellowship but I did win the consolation prize of being an alternate.

As much as I believe I have a level of stoicism about death, I would be lieing to not acknowledge times of self-pity and sadness. Academically I can remove myself from the fear of death studying Montaigne or Epicurus. Considering Sagan’s pale blue dot puts our existence into perspective. The recently deceased Hitchens wrote “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the comos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” However, bridging the gap between rational thought and our lizard brain can be a constant struggle.

Juxtapose our death averse culture with the Romans whose victorious warrior celebrated by parading through town accompanied by an older man. Over the cheers of the crowd he whispered in the warrior’s ear “momento mori” (remember that you will die). Imagine Justin Bieber dancing and singing on stage with some old dude whispering adages about impermanence in his ear, yea, I can’t imagine that either.

My suggestion to give yourself cancer is based on happiness research and that we are paralyzed by too many choices. When told to momento mori the lack of specificity on just how to remember our death leaves us with an infinite number of possible deaths from which to choose (look at the Darwin awards if you’re lacking creativity).

If we are paralyzed by too many choices to the point of inaction when simply choosing a mutual fund for retirement then how are we to “memento mori” with so many ways to die? An abundance of possible outcomes for our own death will leave us unable to internalize the lesson of memento mori.

The choice is made for you if you face a life-threatening disease or event. Mine is cancer. My understanding is if I am to die from this disease I will slip into a coma as my body begins to shut down and I will die in the coma. Memento mori became more significant to me because I can synthesize my happiness around a specific kind of death. My head is not swimming in generalities about death, it’s very real and specific. The finitude of my life stares back at me like Saul’s mirror and it is freeing.

Some reading this may have delayed contemplating memento mori because it’s too difficult without the specifics of their “mori.” The solution I propose is through a thought experiment. Give yourself cancer to help open the dialogue of death in your mind.

 “The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know, how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.” – Montaigne

 

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