Thursday, August 07, 2008

August 7, 2008 - It Happens to Everyone

Film star Kirk Douglas has an insightful little essay in the August 2 issue of Newsweek. He’s not writing about cancer – Douglas had a disabling stroke, and has had to learn to speak again – but the wisdom he has to share about survivorship applies to many different obstacles in life:

“Years ago I was at the bedside of my dying mother, an illiterate Russian peasant. Terrified, I held her hand. She opened her eyes and looked at me. The last thing she said to me was ‘Don’t be afraid, son, it happens to everyone.’ As I got older, I became comforted by those words....

In my case, a deep depression set in when I had a stroke 12 years ago and my speech was affected. The thought that I would never make another movie echoed in my brain. I was constantly beset with passivity. I just wanted to lie in bed and do nothing. Fortunately, my wife believes in tough love. When I lay there feeling sorry for myself, Anne would say, ‘Get your ass out of bed and work on your speech therapy.’ That helped.

Depression is caused by thinking too much about yourself. Try to think of others, try to help them. You will be amazed how that lessens your depression. That satisfaction is priceless.”

There’s more to depression than “thinking too much about yourself,” of course. If nothing else, there are biochemical factors that play a major role. Yet, the mind-body connection is porous, with causation flowing both ways. How we choose to deal with our life-situations does make a difference.

I think Douglas is right: that relentless, “woe is me” pattern of turning in upon ourselves can lead to nothing good. He took his mother’s homespun advice to heart. Sooner or later, death does happen to everyone. It’s all about how we play the cards we’re dealt.

Douglas seems to have learned that the meaning of life is found not in its duration, but in how we live the years we’re given. No doubt, it’s a hard-won lesson. He’s a ripe old 91, but he’s had a grueling dozen years since his stroke. In his first 79 years, he lived a storybook life, becoming Hollywood royalty. Reading his words, I get the sense that these recent years have been among the most rewarding – especially as he and his wife have engaged in a host of philanthropic activities.

His mother’s deathbed words to him are not the sentimental platitude you’d expect to hear in an old-time Hollywood movie. They’re simple, practical and true – as is Kirk Douglas’ advice to us.

Preach it, brother.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Pastor,
Your post today got me thinking, as usual. Why do you think the words, " happens to everyone," helped him?

That phrase, alone, could just as easily lead to despair, don't you think? It's like the joke about struggling through life "and then you die." You know, why work so hard to live if in the end you'll definitely die?

I suspect Douglas was inspired by the thoughts and feeling he had after accepting the universality and inescapability of aging. I can't say exactly what they might have been for Douglas (I'll have to read the essay to see if he's left some clues).

But I had that same insight in the early phase of my cancer survivorship, too, and found it comforting and inspiring. For me, it was the notion that my cancer didn't make me different than healthy people, because eventually everyone becomes a patient - even if only for ten seconds - and then dies. My cancer made me feel connected to every human being who's ever breathed.

Paradoxically, feeling my mortality up close and personal made me step back and see my life from the perspective of eternity: Even the longest-lived human being is only a blink in time.

My life, however shortened by cancer, looks the same from an infinity point of view as if I lived to be 90 years old. Clearly what matters is not how many moments I live, but how much life I put into my moments.

For me, "it happens to everyone" gave me confidence that I had what it takes to make the most of whatever life I had. And by taming my fear, I could more easily and effectively focus on today. The notion that everyone dies so I need to use my time well gave me courage, fortitude and hope.

Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this.

With hope,

Carlos ("Carl") said...


I know, I had the same reaction when I read Kirk Douglas' mother's words. They're hardly the sort of sentimentalized remark most of us would expect from a story like this. There's something jarring about those words. They're blunt in their realism.

Yet, I think it's the very realism that brings comfort. Later in the essay, Kirk tells how his parents, peasants from Russia, emigrated to America, coming over in steerage. They evidently lived a hard, simple life, without the opportunity to cultivate many illusions. This sounds like just the sort of advice a hardworking peasant woman would give to her son.

I wonder if Kirk experienced the full power of those words at the time. From the way he tells the story, I get the sense that maybe he only gradually came to understand the comfort they bring, and maybe didn't fully grasp the import of what his mother was saying until much later in his own life. His mother, on the verge of crossing over into the next life, was serving as his guide for one last time.

Those words are a pretty remarkable gift, when you think about it: a final act of mothering, as she reassures her son that death, while inevitable, is not that bad when it finally comes - not, at least, at the end of a long life, as was the case with her.

Sure, to some, such a message could be cause for despair. But that may say more about where the hearer is, in his or her grappling with the meaning of life and death, than about the speaker.

I like the way you put it: "Clearly what matters is not how many moments I live, but how much life I put into my moments."

Anonymous said...

I was also struck by the essay. Really, one of the more powerful bits I've read in awhile. Mostly by the way he brings to life and gives flesh to being connected to each other.

His description of intimcacy in his marriage at this stage of life is encouraging and I feel guided by them.

Sharing his mother's words with us also felt like guidance just as Carl pointed out that his mother was guiding him.

I'll add a perspective ...the story and those words "it happens to everyone" are a comfort for me partly because death so often is framed as an isolating and isolated experience..."a valley we walk by ourselves." and of course there is something real in that.

But here is a woman who is walking that valley and in that moment is connecting deeply and simply to a loved one, giving, guiding. And at the same time "normalizing" and unviversalizing and creating a "we-ness" with an event that usually tugs at our feelings of being alone.


Carlos ("Carl") said...

Nicely said, Wanda.

Stushie said...

Graet insightful post, Carl. Excellent.