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Volume 1, Issue 3
Autumn 2005:

Craving Reality

Brian T. Maurer

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Autumn; 1(3):a1

In his critique of Jerome Groopman's book, The Anatomy of Hope, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes: "Groopman succeeds principally because he refuses to offer a simple, easily digestible thesis [of hope].... Without its proper nourishment, Groopman suggests, all his patients would perish."1

Abraham Verghese, on the other hand, suggests that "Optimism, it seems, is overrated — at least when it comes to this particular form of cancer. Biology (and the availability of effective treatment) determines fate."2

Writing from his experience as a clinician caring for cancer patients, Verghese observes: "Those patients whom I think of as having negotiated the illness most successfully were those who managed to use the illness to find meaning in their lives.... They did not give up hope, but, instead, the nature of their hope changed; they wished for simpler things like a good night's sleep... In some cases, they seemed to live life more fully than the rest of us.... My deceased patients have taught me over the years to believe in the glass half full, to make good use of the time we have, to be generous — that was their lesson for the Über-mind, and it was free."

Here I am reminded of Thoreau's words: "When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, — that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality."3

"Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel the cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business."4

There is a difference between living and surviving. Ironically, it is very possible to experience life to the fullest during the dying process. It is equally true that the great mass of humanity makes its way through life only by striving to survive as long as possible.

The last six months of his life, when he knew he was dying, Thoreau spent his time editing his existing manuscripts for publication. When he became too weak to write, he dictated his thoughts to his sister Sophia. In a debilitated state, he could no longer wander daily through the Concord woods as was his wont, but he continued to receive visitors with grace. "One world at a time," he is said to have whispered to a friend.

Sophia's observations of Thoreau in his final weeks reveal a remarkable human being:

"Henry was never affected, never reached by [his illness]. I never before saw such a manifestation of the power of spirit over matter. Very often I have heard him tell his visitors that he enjoyed existence as well as ever. He remarked to me that there was as much comfort in perfect disease as in perfect health, the mind always conforming to the condition of the body. The thought of death, he said, could not begin to trouble him. His thoughts had entertained him all his life and did still....

"During his long illness I never heard a murmur escape him, or the slightest wish expressed to remain with us; his perfect contentment was truly wonderful. None of his friends seemed to realize how very ill he was, so full of life and good cheer did he seem. One friend, as if by way of consolation, said to him, "Well, Mr. Thoreau, we must all go." Henry replied, "When I was a very little boy I learned that I must die, and I set that down, so of course I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to you as it is to me."5

Verghese is right — biology determines fate. None of us can change our genetic make up. (At least, not thus far.) And time and chance6 happen to us all.

But I don't see life as a game in which he who lives longest lives best. You do not have to possess great wealth or longevity to count yourself a privileged person. You merely have to cultivate an attitude of daily thankfulness, living each moment in wonder, as though it were a gift from the Über-mind — which, of course, it is.


1 Care of the Vital Organ NYT Book Review, Sunday, 2/22/2004

2 "Hope and Clarity: Is Optimism a Cure?" THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 2-22-04; Hope And Clarity NYT Sunday Magazine, 2/22/2004

3 Henry D. Thoreau. "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" in Walden. New York: 1970

4 Ibid.

5 Walter Harding. The Days of Henry Thoreau. Princeton: 1992, p. 464

6 Ecclesiastes 9:11

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