It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continual experience of the world in all ages, shows this is no evidence, that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world.
Dr. Randy Pausch may have come to your attention during the past year. At Carnegie Mellon University, he delivered a now-famous “Last Lecture” about fulfilling your childhood dreams, and it garnered a great deal of attention: Diane Sawyer, The Oprah, and others invited him on their TV shows, and a Wall Street Journal writer helped Randy turn the Last Lecture into a book.
Why so much attention for a lecture about fulfilling your dreams? Dr. Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006, and if you know anything about PC, then you know it’s a death sentence: over 95% of those diagnosed do not survive five years with the disease.
On August 26 last year, Dr. Pausch posted this on his website:
…a recent CT scan showed that there are 10 tumors in my liver, and my spleen is also peppered with small tumors. The doctors say that it is one of the most aggressive recurrences they have ever seen. The doctors are quick to point out they’re very bad at predicting “how much time,” but the consensus seems to be that I have 3-6 months of relatively good health. After that, it’s hard to say how rapid a decline, and it’s not a particularly pretty way to go. As we have known from the beginning, there is no effective treatment at this point…
Yesterday—11 months later—Randy Pausch died.
Since his story came to my attention around Christmastime, I’ve been following the news about his situation with some interest (or maybe just morbid curiosity). At the time, I wrote, “while I am sobered by the grave situation Randy Pausch finds himself in, it gives me greater pause still to consider that I have no reason whatsoever to think I will outlive him.”
I wonder if people like Heath Ledger, Tim Russert, and Tony Snow heard about Dr. Pausch and thought they would outlive him? I wonder if Steven Curtis Chapman heard about him and considered his own mortality—or that of his daughter?
One of the most nearly-ironic features of Dr. Pausch’s story is that he was involved in a serious car accident while traveling to Capitol Hill to lobby for pancreatic cancer research. He wrote, “Oh, and in the ‘never a dull moment’ category, we had a pretty serious car accident on the drive up, but everybody was okay. How ironic it would have been to go that way!”
But this ironic possibility underscores something we ought not overlook: you’re going to die of something. To tell someone he has three-to-six months to live is at once devastating and presumptuous: devastating, because we mistakenly assume we have a right to the better part of a century, and presumptuous, because not even the next hour is guaranteed.