My brother Jim is now in his second round of chemo for stage 4 brain cancer. So far the scans are clear, but we know with certainty that it’s only a matter of time before another tumor appears somewhere in his brain. His longevity is dependent only on when and where.
Living with cancer is like running your computer with multiple programs open at once. Your attention is focused on the program currently on the screen, but the others are still there in the background, affecting you (including your memory and your operating speed), and it only takes a click to bring one of them to the fore. When the cancer is like Jim’s, that program cannot be relegated to the recycle bin or even put to sleep. It is a permanent part of his system and at some point it will end his life.
This reality is changing Jim in a number of ways. He is the kind of guy who has always lived larger than life, diving deeply into one activity or another. He is highly successful at work, committed to an intense fitness and muscle-building routine, a devoted water-skier who arises early to get in a ski run before work, and a fun and wise friend, father, and husband. Or at least he was all those things. His priorities and his life are different now. Although the last one remains true, Jim currently works no more than 6 hours a day, even if he feels capable of doing more. He says he doesn’t want to spend his life tied to an office and he doesn’t care whether he is recognized for being successful. He still works out, but has lost 15 pounds of muscle weight and is more the size of a typical man than the extreme fitness buff of the recent past. He still skis, but he wants to ensure he gets sufficient sleep so he doesn’t get up early and he only goes out skiing with his wife and/or kids in the boat with him. He isn’t interested in making plans to go on vacations or any kind of trips, preferring to be at home.
In other words, Jim’s entire perspective on life has become more like the widow in the gospel. She quietly and generously gave everything she had. She wasn’t looking for praise or recognition. She was looking to be of service rather than hoarding her money, choosing to make whatever difference her meager means allowed. She knew something that Jim wishes he’d realized sooner, that it’s truly the little things that count. It’s the unseen sacrifices and the depth of character behind those sacrifices. It’s keeping one’s priorities straight and focusing only on those things that are truly important.
Jim was never a selfish or callous person – far from it. Yet I see him deepening, broadening, and centering himself in ways I’ve never seen before. He is the widow standing before me, putting his offering into the box and reminding me in profound ways that it is not important to have stuff, to be physically impressive, to cling to material possessions or chase the highest levels of success. It is important to give of yourself, to love and live with your whole being, and keep relationships at the core. I know these things, but I also know how easy it is to lose sight of them, relegating that particular computer screen to the back of the order.
My prayer for all of us is that it doesn’t take a terminal diagnosis, whether our own or that of someone we love, to shake us up and rearrange our priorities. I resolve again to consciously examine myself in prayer every day, pull up each screen on the computer of my life, and try with the grace of God to keep them in proper perspective. Then I pray for the wisdom to recognize when the sheer number of active programs gets overwhelming or I am getting out of sync, so I can re-boot and return to the Source that created and sustains me. In doing so I will honor Jim and all the people I love, keep my priorities straighter, give freely of myself, and hone in on the moments, relationships, and service that give meaning and purpose to whatever time I have remaining on this earth.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.