This is written for a friend who is currently in a bit of a sticky relationship situation. Which means, as a man with absolutely no expertise or skin in the game (but I can write good!), I thought I’d weigh in.

Part of this is inspired by my own extreme experiences with mortality. When you’re forced to plan on a 6–12 month cycle, and can not rely on any time frame longer than that, there tend to be two different coping mechanisms. I’d be unaware of the second, if not for a documentary about stage 4 breast cancer survivors and the support group they formed. I documented my own bizarre year of coping with cancer and cancer treatment in a blog that can be found here (shameless plug: https://braindamageforbeginners.tumblr.com/). Based on my experience and what I’ve seen in the documentary, there seem to be two ways to deal with a life-limiting diagnosis: the first way, which I embraced, was to make sure my dog would have a happy home should the battle go ill, and then live every second to the hilt (to borrow a phrase from Tombstone) while documenting the whole mad scramble. Admittedly, my entry into the Real Grown-up World has been rather dramatically delayed by multiple bouts with cancer, but, as it turns out, nothing prepares you for tackling a terminal disease like surviving slightly-less-dangerous diseases. In my particular case, I had no major long-term responsibilities or issues I couldn’t shirk or otherwise put on hold long enough to make my entire existence about grappling with brain cancer. I’ve since learned that’s pretty much what it takes. Now, I have a horrible credit rating, I’m living with my parents, and my mere existence is highly precarious, but that overlooks a more fundamental triumph: I am alive, now. In the documentary I saw, all of the women involved put a depressing amount of time into sorting through their personal possessions, getting their financials in order (I have cunningly avoided that by not owning anything of any real worth), planning their funerals, etc. Getting a 14–24 month life expectancy is a horrible thing, but, at the same time, it is fascinating because people will reveal their very truest selves. The women in this film were coming to terms with the Great Western Lie, which is best summarized by Lewis Carrol as “Jam Tomorrow.” In my own case, I got to contemplate how many years I’d spent chasing things that weren’t happening for me; pursuing women who weren’t terribly interested in me; in short, doing things that didn’t spark joy immediately (apologies to Mari Kondo), in the hope that it would pay off later. Except there is no later, and there likely never will be. It’s a horrifying, saddening, and simultaneously freeing revelation. In my case it was a bizarre situation where a lifetime of bad bets and poor decisions that failed to create the future I carefully planned out at age 19 suddenly paid off massively; in the case of the women in the documentary I saw, it was the sad realization that putting off joy now in favor of a well-planned, quiet, stable life, meant nothing, in the end. We’re all just worm food, one way or another.

To bring this back to my friend, she’s about to undergo a 10 month relationship hiatus of sorts due to work issues, which saddens her. Normally, I’d point out that most long-term relationships eventually become long-distance relationships for a period (something like 70%, according to one statistic I’ve seen floating around), except she’s worried this is the death rattle of a relationship that she’s invested a lot in, and she doesn’t want to go back to the singles scene (I heartily empathize with that). Which ties together with the Great Societal Lie, that it’s better to stay in a stable-but-miserable situation and tough it out, than to scream, “To hell with this” and take your chances (I believe it was John Adams who originally wrote that).

We spend so much of our lives desperately preparing for tomorrow, without the massive caveat that tomorrow may never come. Greta Thunberg is the face of that realization that we’ve been told to sit down, shut up, keep our heads down, and pay our taxes, while the political and economic elite have been working to cash in on our future. It’s amazing what we’ll put up with, as a society, with the promise that tomorrow will be better. We’ll happily give up a decent today in hopes of a great tomorrow. What I learned in the last year, especially seeing my father, who has lived a responsible, good life, quietly investing in the future, getting cancer diagnoses and other life-limiting diagnoses (in other words, learning that all his saving and investing and work can not buy back the 40+ years he spent on his career instead of traveling and reading), and the women in the documentary is; there are two universal, irreplaceable things that can never be fully recovered: health and time. If you have those two things, you are far richer than I and most of my support group friends. If you sacrifice those things for something as paltry as money or an unfulfilling relationship (or set of relationships) in the hopes that it’ll pay off, well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it won’t. Don’t delay satisfaction now in the vague promise of joy later. Or, to give you the masterwork on the unfortunate, temporary nature of human existence.

Christmas Greetings 2008
From Ray Bradbury

Imagine that you have been dead for a year, ten years, one hundred years, a thousand years. The grave and night have taken and kept you in that silence and dark which says nothing and so reveals absolutely zero.
In the middle of all this darkness and being alone and bereft of sense, let us imagine that God comes to your still soul and lonely body and says:
I will give you one minute of life. I will restore you to your body and sense for sixty seconds. Out of all the minutes of your life, choose one. I will put you in that minute, and you will be alive again, after a hundred, a thousand years of darkness. Which is it?
Think.
Speak.
Which minute do you choose?
And the answer is:
Any minute. Any minute at all! Oh, God, Oh Sweet Christ, oh mystery, give me any minute all my life.
And the answer further is:
When I lived, I didn’t know that every minute was special, precious, a gift, a miracle, an incredible thing, an impossible work, an amazing dream.
But now, like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Morn, with snow in the air and the promise of rebirth given, I know what I should have known in my dumb shambles:
That all is a lark, and it is a beauty beyond tears, and also a terror. But I dance about. I become a child. I am the boy who runs for the great bird in the window and I am the man who sends the boy running for that bird, and I am the life that blows in the snowing wind along the street, and the bells that sound and say, live, love, for too soon your name which is shaped in snow melt, or your soul, which is inscribed like a breath of vapor on a cold glass pane fade.
Run, run, lad, run, down the middle of Christmas at the center of life.

Hopefully, that perspective — that life is too short to bear the unbearable in the hope that it will all turn out for the best — helps any hard decisions you’ve been putting off, dear reader.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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