Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 7/11/2005 3:33 AM
Random Thought: Cancer, Death, Unreasonableness, and Teaching

It's about 8 am, July 5th. Climbing to 30,000 feet. I've been up since 4 am to catch this plane. I'm tired from a sleepless four day July 4th weekend revelry at a wedding in D.C. and heading home for four more sleepless days to help Susan and our friends prepare for my son's wedding this coming weekend on two weeks notice. I had put down my crossword puzzle book, was about to become a human pretzel in this modern day torture cell called an airplane seat when it all struck me and came together. My eyes popped open, I grabbed the pen and began scribbling in the margins of the puzzle book.

First, there was a few seconds of conversation with a guest at the wedding reception whom I didn't know.

"Nice. You look like you're having fun. I wish I could do that," a guest at the wedding reception had said to me as she commented on the large rose that I had placed on my left ear.

"You can." I took her by the hand to a table, pulled another rose from the centerpiece, and gently placed it in her ear. "There," I said, "enjoy yourself."

She quickly took it out. With a face that suddenly lost its glow, her smile quickly vanished, her eyes darting back and forth to see if someone had noticed, she said in a frightened and saddened tone, "Oh, I couldn't. I look too foolish."

I thought to myself, "What a way to kill the refreshing joy of doing what you want to do with convention."

Second, there was a conversation with some of us old left-over (pun intended) activist denizens from the '60s and '70s. As the night moved on into the morning and the party moved from the synagogue to the hotel bar, some of us started to reminisce about the "good ole days." Anyone remember the WHOLE EARTH CATALOGUE of the late '60s and early '70s? My memories of it were jogged in these going back conversations. One of my Susan's cousins reminded us how the CATALOGUE had ended its run with the guiding farewell, "Stay hungry. Stay Foolish."

And third, there was a blistering message I had received the day before I left for D.C. from a mid-western professor who responded to my last Random Thought, "Let Me Count the Ways," with a pointed accusation, "Dr. Schmier. You're foolish and unreasonable."

I had taken her barb for an unintended compliment. So, keeping in mind all those glasses of wine lifted to "L'Chaims" (to life) during this weekend, that wedding guest, the CATALOGUE, and this professor, knowing the sleep is an impossibility in this cramped flying sardine can, I want to jot down some thoughts on "unreasonableness.

First, I want to talk about death. At first glance, it's not a great topic of conversation in this particular place, especially after a joyous wedding, is it. But, hear me out. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer last November, though my doctor and the consultants Susan and I went to for second and third opinions said the cancer had been caught in its earliest of stages and was curable, it was the first time I really was confronted with the reality of my death. You know, earliest stages be damn, the word, "cancer," in spite of all the medical advances in recent years, has the dirge of a death knell to it. A common cold it is not! You don't dance a hora to its ring. Anyway, until that moment, death had been an abstraction. It was a purely intellectual concept or theological construct. Sure, for the past 14 years, since my epiphany, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself the Talmudic question: "If I wouldn't be here tomorrow, if today were the last day of my life, would I soon be doing what I will be doing today?" Even though my answer has been a daily and joyful "yes," that question, nevertheless, was more abstraction than reality. I mean how many of us really think we aren't going to see tomorrow's sunrise. How many of us really think we're always going to have more time. How many of us really believe this is going to be the last day. Now, having been confronted with that possibility, I consciously do. Or, at least, never has my awareness of that possibility been more intense, truer, and more vivid than it has for the last seven months.

I remember saying to myself when I heard the results of the biopsy, though the doctor was sensitive and compassionate when he uttered those words, "You've got cancer," I felt a panic swelling up. I wasn't ready. I wasn't prepared. I didn't want to die; I was too young; I had just turned 63; I had too much still to do and much more to become. And, even though I'm living in the southern Bible Belt, I don't know anyone, even the most devout, who's rushing out to jump into a coffin. But, death is something none of us can avoid. No one has. We just avoid talking about it and facing up to its inevitability. I no longer can avoid that avoiding.

Some of you may think what I've just said is just plain morbid and has nothing to do with academics, much less teaching. It's not morbid and it has everything to do with academics. When we avoid talking about death, the rabbis tell us that we avoid talking about life. So, even though I said that I wanted to talk first about death, I really want to talk about life. You see, that is because once you've had cancer, your whole outlook on life changes. You acquire a keen or, as in my case, a keener appreciation for life. Every day is a toast of l'chaim. For me, the pronouncement of having cancer not only placed me the closest I have ever been to facing death, it has placed me the closest I have been to facing life. The real prospect of a "now" death has given me more of a "now" feeling for life than I've ever had. I listen, see, feel, touch, smell with a greater intensity. I am finding that having been reminded that I am going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of not living.

I, like every human being, came into this world naked and according to Jewish tradition, I, like every human being, will leave this world naked. But, you know, I now realize more intensely than ever, that I, like every human being, am always naked no matter what clothes I wear, no matter what foods I eat, no matter how I'm housed, no matter how I get around, no matter what my income, no matter how long my resume, no matter what I've published, no matter what authority I've accrued, no matter what reputation I've achieved, no matter what degrees I've earned, no matter what titles and positions I hold. Why am I already naked? Because, as I've already said in earlier Random Thoughts, the pride, shyness, arrogance, fear of what others say or think, self-righteousness, ego, fear of failure, the hesitation to live that go with the quest for approval of others and possession of these possessions are nothing--nothing--in the face of death. They are valueless in facing and facing up to death. Take away these material things and what's left is what's truly important. The gift of facing death is being confronted with your "approval obsession" and "possession fixation" and realizing how they restrict and constrict personal growth, relationships with yourself and others, freedom, imagination, creativity, and fulfillment. Death makes you intensely aware of your real options and your real potential--as well as your destiny. So, once I had cancer, there's no longer any reason left for me not to follow my heart and do what I want to do and do what I honestly feel needs doing.

So many of us have crowded out what Emerson called the independence of solitude in the midst of the crowd. So many of us throw away our precious personal and professional years living someone else's life and trying to be someone we're not. So many of us fall so easily into the trap set by "the system" spun by the decisions and thinking of other people. So many of us need to prove to others rather than prove to themselves. So many of us accept the need for acceptance. So many of us approve of the quest for the approval of others. So many of us live down to the expecations of others rather than living up to our own. So many let the cacaphony of others' sounds drown out the harmony of our own inner voice. So many of us waste our limited time by accepting limits imposed by others. So few of us have the courage to live the life we want to live and need to live instead of listening to others telling us how to live. So many of us guide ourselves by the guidelines drawn up by others. So many of us spend our time and energy satisfying needs that others say we need. So many of us seek the professional riches rather than living richly, to do well rather than living well, to seek good fortune rather than realizing we are our own good fortune. So many of us douse the courageous spark of spontaneity and adventure with the insecure waters of needed guarantees. So many of us seek the gain and lose ourselves thinking that material and professional riches automatically make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. So many of us can't go through the difficulty and discomfort and inconvenience of "professional possessions withdrawal."

So, so few of us break the bonds of safe convention and become freed, free-thinking contrarians. So few of us follow our hearts and gut feelings that seem to already know what we truly want to do, what needs doing, and what we want to become. So many of us don't stay fresh, aren't foolish, and are so damn reasonable. The result is that inside so many of us are unhappy, bored, unfulfilled, unsatisfied, numb, and lifeless. And, try as we may to hide it, so many of us model all that in our words and actions for the students who are not so "dumb" as not to notice it--and sadly too often learn it!

Well, in spite of the cocoon-like conditions, and feeling there's more to say, I'm suddenly crashing--a lousy word to use in a plane 30,000 feet above the ground--and will try to grab a few winks. I've got a two hour drive to Valdosta after I land. I think I'll stop here and continue on later with how I'll tell that professor about the joy and freedom of being fresh, foolish, and unreasonable. I'll just leave you with the words of Mark Twain that I had rediscovered a few months ago and tattooed on my soul, and that I'll put on my office door when I return to campus in August:

			Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by
			the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do.
			So throw off the bowlines.
			Sail away from the safe harbor.
			Catch the trade winds in your sails.
			Explore. Dream. Discover.

Stay fresh. Stay foolish. Be unreasonable. L'Chaim.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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