Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Wisdom of Dying

The Wisdom of Dying
Ever since I read Jack Covert's review of Gene O'Kelly's book, "Chasing Daylight," I've wanted to read it.

The Cliffs Notes version is simple, O'Kelly, then the CEO of KPMG, discovers suddenly that he has inoperable brain cancer, and has around 100 days to live. He sets out to achieve the best death he can by reaching closure in his relationships with colleagues, friends, and family, while documenting his quest in his book.

This is the kind of book that really sticks with me. Most of my friends know that I am terrified of death, and still hold out hope that Kurzweil is right, and that we will achieve some form of human immortality in my lifetime (I'm 31). This book shows that tragedy can affect anyone.

O'Kelly receives his diagnosis when he is 53--in the prime of his professional life. One day he's jetting around the world, and the next, he discovers that he won't live to see his daughter start the 8th grade that fall.

Yet with the dogged persistence of a born accountant, O'Kelly decides to look upon his death sentence as a gift: His doctors tell him that he won't feel any pain, and that he can live his life as best he can until the end. He decides that the most important thing to him are the people in his life, and he sets out to say goodbye to as many of them as he can, cramming close to 1,000 goodbyes into his final 100 days.

You can sense both the frustration and acceptance that he feels as the book progresses. He comes to realize that dying has allowed him to learn so much more about what is important, and about how to fill his life with "Perfect Moments". He understands that even though he tried to bring more balance to the lives of his employees, he could have done more had he the courage and creativity to set an example, rather than working 90-hour weeks. Yet even though he clearly wishes he had been able to take advantage of his hard-won wisdom earlier in his life, his acceptance of his situation allows him to focus on living his rapidly decreasing days, rather than on regrets.

I don't know how this book will impact my life. After all, I'm young, and hope to have many a year before I need to confront these issues. But I would like to think that I can carry away some of Gene's dying wisdom and *live* my life for today, rather than focusing on the sort of golden retirement that Gene planned on for 30 years and never got to experience.

One of the crucial insights that Gene has is that at some point, you need to wind down your life. When you die, you'll be stopped. If you're traveling 60 MPH up to the day you die, you'll crash. It may be too early for me to slow down to the extent that Gene did in the last 100 days of his life, but I am going to try to direct some of my attention away from the future and towards the present, and let the people in my life know how important they are to me.


Ben Casnocha said...

This sounds awesome! many books, so little time. It will be several months before I get to this one but i can't wait.

Ben Casnocha said...

P.S. being scared of death adds a positive sense of urgency to our lives right now, which is a good thing. But you should also be able to achieve spiritual peace with the concept of death while you are living.