The Truth I Live By, Guest Post: Uncle Bill

Uncle Bill and Aunt Cindy
Uncle Bill and Aunt Cindy

When you have someone close to you die as a kid, the memory of that person tends to stay larger than life.  My Uncle Bill was cool for a grown up.  He encouraged my subpar piano skills, and turned me on to cool music and literature.  He made me a tape called classical music for heavy metal fans.  Once, the family got together and watched the movie, A Clockwork Orange.  While we watched the video, Uncle Bill got up, picked the book version of it up off of his shelf and paced behind the couch reading it.  He finished the book before we finished the movie and filled us in on what we missed out on in the movie version.  He was diagnosed with colon cancer at 35 years of age, months after he finished his residency to become an oncologist. He died at 39.  That was 1992.  I was 17.  Today’s Guest Post comes from the diary of my late Uncle Bill.  They are wise words for all, and confirm my memory that Uncle Bill was Awesome.

The Truth I Live By

(William John Smith 1953-1992)

Everything makes sense. This can be paraphrased many different ways, although many attempts are less accurate. One of Voltaire’s characters stated, “All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds. This is unnecessarily optimistic. My phrasing doesn’t imply that everything that happens to us is good either in the short or the long term. Everyone experiences moments or long periods of unpleasantness. One can hope that over the long period of a lifetime these sad times may not add up to much overall, but most persons with a little thought can think of individuals whom “fate has treated unkindly,” i.e. who have received more than their share of agonies. I’m not sure how long ago I came to believe (or realize) that fairness isn’t the issue. There is nothing fair about life, either in distribution of rewards or unhappiness. And what’s to say that it should be fair. If each of us had an opportunity to create a world, then maybe that’s an attribute that we would build in. But this world is not of our making, and all of the mental checklists that we might make comparing who’s gotten more breaks than we have, etc., will never change the fact that we have to make the best of what we’ve got, not despair over what we perceive as inequities. So life isn’t fair. How do we cope with that? One way might be to remind ourselves that no matter how bad things seem to be at any one time, a little time spent flipping around the TV channel or reading a news magazine will serve as a reminder that we should be embarrassed to be heard complaining about the vast majority of things that concern us. I don’t doubt for a second that I have lived a very privileged existence compared to 90% of the world’s people.

I’m not sure that that is the best way to approach a new tragedy, though (i.e., making ourselves feel better by thinking of others doing worse). I would appreciate a more optimistic approach. The best way to greet each unpleasant event is to grab it by the throat and make the best of it. My wife and I have both had our share of suffering, almost all of it, I’m happy to say proceeding our first date. There is no doubt that led to a degree of maturity that made our time together (pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis) much more meaningful than the lives of those growing up “with the silver spoons.”

Is cancer unfair? Is it fair that we should expect billions of cells in our body to reproduce over and over again, over an entire lifetime, and always get it right? Doesn’t it make more sense to recognize the initial miracle of our birth, the magnificence of our growth into feeling, loving, praising adults, the privilege of experiencing enough of life that we can despair over not having the time to spend longer doing the same? One of the things I am most grateful for is that many, many years ago I learned to be grateful for what I’ve been given. I didn’t, as occurs with many, only get shocked into this realization by a terminal tragedy. This type of appreciation often does begin in the midst of despair, and for that reason I am actually glad that I had enough hard times as a young man, to allow me to think hard about what things are and are not important. Accordingly, for the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve been able to ignore aspects of 20th century American living that are of no consequence to me (parties, cars, frivolous chatter, clubs, etc.) and concentrate on things that touch me personally. I am forever grateful for what it was that dropped the blinders from my eyes so many years ago.

I am very sad that people seem to see so little of the world around them. I can’t walk outside without seeing the beauty of our created world, from the rainbow in a line of earthworm slime, to another visible ring on Jupiter. We have been given this magnificent world to study and enjoy in limitless detail at any level, microscopic to cosmic. Even though I have enough things to interest me another 10 lifetimes, I must take solace in knowing that, at least compared to others, I’ve had much more than my share even in half a life time.

6 Comments

  1. I didn’t know, or at least don’t remember, about the movie and the tape. It is interesting to read your memories of your time with him.. I am always awed when I read this piece; his words are so profound. Thanks for sharing them with others

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  2. Uh-oh. You Uncle Bill is making me think twice: if I continue to insist on being grateful for every event in my life – pleasant AND unpleasant – then how can I justify caring so much about disadvantaged people. If I generalize my attitude, wouldn’t I be grateful for them and the situations they are in? I don’t mean to be grateful in a way in which I am grateful for the opportunity to be generous where it really makes a difference, but to be grateful for their situations that cause what we perceive as suffering. I wonder where this train of thought is going. I welcome anyone who wants to derail it.

    “Even though I have enough things to interest me another 10 lifetimes, I must take solace in knowing that, at least compared to others, I’ve had much more than my share even in half a life time.” This hit me. I learned to deal with my vast interest in and access to opportunities on a wide variety of paths, by considering that death is not the end; this is not The Big Show, It, or The End. I will have more opportunities after “death”.

    Thanks for sharing your uncle with us.

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  3. A tough read (for obvious reasons plus my past and present) but it is so very heart-warming to hear his thoughts. There is so much meaning to his words. It’s hard when ‘we’ die so young. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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