Phil is dying, optimist versus pessimist

My friend, Phil Conners, has cancer. His bones are breaking; his body is no longer producing blood; he is struggling to breathe; and he has run out of treatment possibilities. He is handling all of this surprisingly well. When your every other option has been taken away, you can still inspire people by the way you die.

Since I met Phil in 1992, his house burned to the ground, he lost an eye, his son drowned while trying to rescue a stranger, his wife had cancer, and he himself has fought cancer for years; yet I have never seen anything get him down. When I ask him how he is, he says, “Well, I’m breathing, and I can still walk for short distances, so I guess I’m doing pretty good.” I would need a lot more than that to pronounce life good, but I see no reason to rain on Phil’s parade.

I would like to think that Phil’s bravery is a choice, but I suspect that there are those among us who are congenitally upbeat. It’s as if they have a net beneath them that softens their every fall, no matter how far the drop. That stated, I can’t say that I too wouldn’t face death well. I haven’t faced an arthritic knee well (it being the worst thing that has ever happened to me), but I see no reason to conclude that despondency over a relatively small thing would necessarily indicate despondency over any and all great things. Just as an ordinary toothache might hurt worse than a fatal stroke, so might people’s emotional reactions vary.

At least if I were dying, I would know that the indignity of using the toilet was near an end. At least, there would be that advantage, whereas I can’t think of any advantage to an arthritic knee. The damn thing hurts so bad right now that I can hardly sit still. It keeps me awake at night; it threatens to collapse during the day; it has robbed me of the ability to engage in the activities I enjoyed most; and there is no good solution. There might be something that I could learn from it, but I don’t know what.

Peggy went skiing last week with a couple of fellows named Rick and Doug, who got into an argument on the drive to the mountains. Rick said that he is, and always has been, prone to depression, but that he has learned that there is a benefit to his depression; namely, that he has more philosophical and emotional depth than people who are inveterate optimists. Doug being an inveterate optimist, an argument ensued that got so nasty that the other people in the car ducked down and stayed quiet.

Most traits probably do have their upsides and their downsides, and these aren’t always obvious or even discoverable. Of course, I pretty much have to think this way, because if I were to judge my worth as a human being by the way I am handling this knee issue, I would come out looking bad; just as Phil Conners would come out looking bad if he were judged by how clean he keeps his house.

Okay, so maybe dying well is more important than keeping your furniture dusted, but then again, maybe it isn’t. Maybe all that God really cares about is cleanliness (it being next to Godliness), which would mean that Phil is doomed to burn in hell and me to have a front-row seat in heaven (where I would probably be put to work polishing something). Which one of us would be more content with our fate is another issue.