By Barry Rubin
Nothing is stranger than having a normal life and then within a few hours knowing that it might end at almost any moment. That’s what happened to me when I was just diagnosed with what is called inoperable lung cancer. I am still waiting final results of the tests and the choice of therapies.
I have no desire to make this my focus but it’s been suggested that I write something about it that might be of broader interest.
First, for those of us whose understanding of cancer is based on past information, it is very important to understand that a lot has changed. That diagnosis twenty or thirty years ago would have given a person only a few months to live. Today, with many of the new therapies invented, one has a fighting chance. Still, it is tough to have your life expectancy lowered from around twenty years to a minimum of two within moments.
People always asked me why I wrote so much and so intensively. I never told them one of the real reasons: I always expected my life would be limited. My grandfathers died, respectively, at 42 and 44, both of things that could have been cured today. My father died of a heart attack at 62, and his life probably could have been extended many years today by all the new tests and drugs available. But I felt that once I passed that birthday, less than a year ago, I might be living on borrowed time.
They say that when you are fighting cancer that becomes a full-time job in itself. Supported by my truly wonderful family, I’m working on it. Right away one starts paring things down: unsubscribing to lots of things; knowing that I will never again have time for hobbies. The decision to start reading a book is like a major life choice.
And I know I won’t be going canoeing down the Jordan River with an old friend in August. In fact, having passed out briefly about a half-dozen times—though we think we’ve solved that problem—I’ll probably never drive again nor, after cancelling two trips, travel internationally. In fact, the way things are going at the moment, I might never eat solid food again.
The best thing to do is to accept everything calmly—bargaining, hysteria, rage, won’t do any good--and then decide that one is going to fight with the object of beating the disease. Unlike much of political life, this is not caused by malevolent forces.
This is not, however, the only transformative event I’ve had this week. I don’t want this to come out wrong but I have been touched and encouraged by an outpouring of emails from friends, acquaintances, and readers about how much they appreciated my work. Up until now, I’ve really thought that my articles have gone into a void.
As you know, we live in an era where many ideas, much truth, and certainly the kind of things that I think are largely barred from the most prestigious (although daily less so) media and institutions. We are either ignored or vilified. Now, though, the counter-audience has grown so long and people are so hungry for accuracy and cutting through the nonsense that our ranks have grown into the millions. When someone tells you that you’ve helped them, informed them, encouraged them, or even changed their lives it is an immeasurable feeling.
And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the cost has been worth receiving these messages, it is closer than one might ever believe.
There are some constructs I’ve come up with that I find comforting. Briefly:
Every living thing that has ever existed has died, at least in terms of being on this earth. If they could do it I can do it.
I feel like I have been captured by an enemy force (you all can insert specific names) and they want to execute me. I hope to escape or to be rescued by my friends.
Even if I didn’t have this disease, I could leave life on any day due to many causes without warning.
For 2000 years my ancestors dreamed of returning to their homeland and reestablishing their sovereignty. I have had the privilege of living that dream. How amazing is that?
We have to judge ourselves by whether we’ve lived up to our ideals and done our best. Not by the accumulation of power, wealth or fame; not for failing to achieve the impossible.
A famous Jewish story about that is the tale of Rabbi Zosia who said that he did not expect God to berate him for not having been Moses—who he wasn’t—but for not having been Zosia.
To me, that means we must do the best to be ourselves while trying to make ourselves as good as possible. I’ve really tried to do that. I don’t have big regrets, nor bitterness, nor would I have done things very differently.
And I’ve discovered the brave community of those who are supporting and encouraging each other in the battle against this disease.
Finally, I find myself identifying with a poem by a Turkish writer named Ilhami Bekir that goes like this:
“Neither vineyards, nor gardens
Do I ask.
Nor horses, nor sheep.
Don't take my soul away,
I am curious.
I must see how this game ends!”
The game, of course, doesn’t end and I don’t expect to live to see utopia realized. But it would be nice to live long enough to see America and the world pass out from this current dreadful era, to see some restoration of sanity and reality, some kind of victory for goodness, some kind of restoration of intellectual standards, and a higher level of justice.
Some friends tell me they think we’ve turned the corner and that there’s real hope of beating the terrible forces that have messed up our societies and insulted our intelligence and tried to sully our reputations.
That’s something worth living for and fighting for. I hope to do it with you people as long as possible.