At another point of this lunch, my friend told me about a family friend of theirs that was recently diagnosed with cancer. He is in his early forties and has three small children. By cancer I mean cancer all over his body (back, liver, lungs, etc.). Since my brother has gotten sick I have been writing a blog to keep friends and families updated on his status. Apparently some people have found this blog helpful, so my friend’s mother suggested that she give my blog address to their family friend. The thought was that tracking with my brother as he deals with brain cancer would hopefully encourage and give him strength to fight his own disease.
For whatever reason I can’t shake this guy from my head. I feel overwhelmed that his entire body is being overtaken by cancer. I’m sad for his daughters, I’m sad for his wife and I’m sad for him. I feel overwhelmed because I want to help him but know that any assistance I can give him is superficial. Maybe my blog will help him put things in perspective, but ultimately I cannot delay the inevitable. I cannot fix the real thing that ails him. I can’t make him happy.
That is, of course, unless I have this whole happiness thing all wrong. On Monday I found out that the father of one of my closest friends died of a massive heart attack. Ironically he and his wife were just returning home from the doctor’s office. They pulled into the driveway of their home and he died on the spot. I wrote earlier that death never seems natural, and always feels uncomfortable and out of place. Although I believe this is true, the older I get the more I realize that it is just a matter of time before something happens directly to me or to someone I know very dearly.
So what’s the point? Why does any of this matter? I mean, if we are all just essentially buying our time until we are food for the worms, what’s the point of the struggle? I acknowledge that my relatively young age prevents me from truly understanding things on a profound level. I simply haven’t lived life long enough to really know anything. But perhaps happiness isn’t the point. Perhaps the reason I continually feel unsatisfied is that I’m not supposed to strive for happiness. Just so we are all clear, let’s not talk semantics either. I’m not referring to joy, contentment or any other “thing” that roughly equates happiness.
What I will say is that I’m pretty sure that happiness is best described in the book The Giving Tree. (Shame on you if you have never read this book, but I’ll try to summarize.) There is this little boy who has this tree. It’s a great big tree, perfect for climbing and playing. The boy and this tree are best friends. As the story progresses the boy becomes older and older. Eventually he falls in love, then he moves away and the tree is lonely. One day the boy returns but it isn’t to play. Rather, it is because he has run out of money and was wondering if the tree could help him out. The tree doesn’t have much but it is an apple tree, so the tree suggests that he takes his apples and sells them for a profit. The boy does this. As the story goes, the boy later returns and asks for his branches to build a home, then his trunk to build a boat. Eventually the tree is nothing more than a stump.
The boy, no longer a boy, returns to the tree as an elderly man. The tree says to the boy, “I have nothing else to give! You have taken everything!” The boy responds by saying that he doesn’t want anything else, all he wants is somewhere to sit; somewhere where he can just be. And do you know how the book ends? “And the tree was happy.”
Much has been written about whether or not this is a symbiotic relationship or merely the boy taking advantage of the tree. On one level, sure, it may be. But on another level I don’t think that is really the point. The tree was happy because at the end of the day he had companionship, he had the boy and that was all he really wanted. His happiness was not dependent on the boy’s maturity. Ask any parent and they will tell you that children are selfish creatures. It’s not their fault; it is simply their nature. But ask these same parents and I guarantee they will tell you that they deeply love their children—because at the end of the day, happiness has very little to do with what is given in a relationship. In fact, I would argue that receiving is 100% absent in true happiness.
What’s interesting about this pursuit of happiness is that often time it involves a lifelong pursuit of this greater meaning to life. People read books, listen to lectures, fly to Nepal and do whatever it takes to find happiness. But maybe all they really need is the realization that something exists that is much bigger than them. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone who is unhappy is self-centered. Again, this is somewhat semantics so let’s use “heartbreak” instead of “unhappy.” I would like to think that it’s not as though I’m unhappy; my heart just breaks…a lot. Sometimes for myself, sometimes for others, but an appropriate response to all the pain and suffering in the world, I would argue, actually is heartbreak. But I don’t want to talk about unhappiness anymore, let’s talk about happiness.
I just listened to Jimmy Valvano’s speech at the 1993 ESPYs. I highly, highly recommend it if you are in need of a little emotional/spiritual pick me up. The basic gist of the speech is that after he was diagnosed with cancer he made a commitment to live his life passionately and full of energy. He still pursued his dreams and loved every day like it was his last. I acknowledge that this outlook on life may actually be more natural for someone that knows his or her life is about to end. Perhaps knowing that you only have X amount of days left on earth inherently motivates you to spend those last few days doing good and keeping your head held high. But what I find interesting is that the people that “die well” do so elevating, or attempting to elevate, others.
Think of the Jimmy V’s of the world, the Randy Pausch’s of the world, the book Tuesdays With Morrie. Why is it that in all these situations these individuals just seem so happy? Maybe even better stated, why is it that when I glance at my bookshelf, I see a book by Jim Valvano, Randy Pausch and Tuesdays with Morrie? I’ll let you in on a little bit of a secret: it’s because they are happy and I own the books because they have what I want. Somehow they were able to figure out that at the end of the day, their life was really just a drop in the bucket of humanity and that the only way their drop could have any significance is if they help other people navigate through the confusion and pain that life holds.
They figured out that giving of themselves was the only thing that made any sense. The irony is that when they didn’t have much of themselves left to give, that’s when they gave everything. But here’s the thing, the Giving Tree was happy after he gave everything he had to the boy. I think he was happy because when he had no more to give, the boy came back and just stayed with the tree. I think the boy finally got it at the end of the story. I think he finally understood that at the end of your life, life has very little to do with what you accumulate or receive, but rather has much more to do with what you give.
I’m reluctant to bring scripture in to this, but I can’t get over what Jesus says in the book of John, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (15:13 NIV). I think about this verse all the time. What exactly does it mean? Well, I think in a lot of ways people like my dad just get this. I remember how positive he was while he was going through his cancer. Now granted there were definitely times when he became upset over his situation, but by and large he remained positive throughout. I can’t help but appreciate the lessons my dad taught me as he was dying. No part of me is happy my dad died, but I do appreciate the lessons that his death taught me. In a weird way, I kind of think this is what the verse is talking about. I’m sure that the verse is implying that there is no greater love than willingly giving up one’s life for another, but maybe it doesn’t even have to be willingly. Maybe what was so special about my dad’s sacrifice is that his death provided me a glimpse into how much he loved me. Maybe watching him being forced to give up everything while still showing love up until the moment of his death was the greatest gift I can ever receive. And what’s more, maybe I can never really figure it out until I learn how to give this love back in some way.