A friend called me Monday evening to give me some news about someone I used to know. A woman I knew in high school has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s Stage 4 brain cancer.
I haven’t seen the woman since high school, but her husband — who I knew casually back then — is a banker who I deal with from time to time. I knew his wife very well back then, mostly from long trips on a church bus.
A couple of weeks ago, she suddenly felt strange and passed out. She was quickly diagnosed and had surgery, but what I read about Stage 4 brain cancer doesn’t sound promising.
I can’t help thinking how much it must change your view of the world when you find out that your life is suddenly threatened in a serious way. And how does it change you when this happens to your wife? Or your husband? Or whoever you love most?
Wouldn’t it completely change the meaning of your life? The things that seemed so important before would become meaningless — and the most mundane routines of love would become priceless.
I have no idea what’s going on in the hearts and minds of this old friend and her husband, so my speculation isn’t really about them in particular. The news about their lives simply has me thinking yet again about how the meaning of life keeps changing for me.
I grew up accepting the values of this dysfunctional culture a lot more deeply than I realized at the time. Even though I was a Christian, I didn’t realize the degree to which this fallen world’s values had permeated my life.
I wanted money, ego satisfaction, fame, power and glory.
There were good things I wanted to do with my power and wealth, but I see now that my goals at the time were incompatible with what I really need. I told myself that I could have everything. I could be wealthy and powerful. I could be loved and admired. I could have it all.
It took me years to realize this was a cultural lie. I had to learn that life is one long series of tradeoffs. You can’t have everything the world offers. Whatever you choose cuts off other paths. Trying to have it all guarantees you’ll end up with less than you can possibly imagine.
There was a song in 1987 that made an impression on me at the time but it’s meant more to me as the years have passed. In a song called, “What is the Measure of Your Success,” Christian artist Steve Taylor imagined a wealthy old man on his deathbed:
I am an old man
And the word came
But you can’t buy time or a good name
Now when the heirs come around
Like buzzards on a kill
I see my reflection in their envious eyes
I’d watch it all burn to buy another sunrise
The measure of my success has changed. I’ve experienced some of the success I wanted. I had the money for awhile. I never had the power, thank goodness, because I understand it would have corrupted me. But I had enough of success to realize it wasn’t what I needed. Not really.
If I came to the end of my life and had massive success — everything I once dreamed of — I would be like that old man in the song. I would want to trade it all away just to live for one more day.
But it’s not just one more day of any life. It’s one more day — or week or month or decade — of life if I’m connected to someone I love.
I was always scornful of the attitude among hippies — and popularized by the Beatles — that all you need is love. But in ways which I wasn’t prepared to discover, I’ve found they were right. I don’t know whether they understood things as I do now. Maybe, maybe not. But the right kind of love and connection are more important than any money or success.
It would still be nice to have wealth. I still believe I could find good things to do with power. But all of worldly success would be trivial without the love and connection which my heart still longs for. Some people would consider that madness or worse.
I consider it wisdom — learned from living with the pain of having made poor choices in the past.
If someone had begged me to understand this when I was 21 or 25 or 35, I would have shrugged it off. About the time I hit 40, change was slowly starting to faintly dawn for me. Today, it’s simple and obvious to me.
I can’t force anybody else to see this. I can’t force anybody else to join me in changing how success is measured. And that’s painful for me.
All I can say is that when you understand, this knowledge — this wisdom — changes you. And when it does — if it does — I hope you’ll join me. Life can have more meaning than you ever imagined it could.
But most people learn that too late to make any difference. I hope it’s not too late for me. And I hope it’s not too late for you.