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Living as if We Were Dying

If you learned you were dying, would you reduce your workload, place a higher priority on love and relationship or switch mates? If so, why put it off just because you don't have a terminal illness yet?
 
 
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Although most of the coverage of Mayor Giulani's withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race has focused on politics, the human implications of the Mayor's stunning announcement are far more important. For it constitutes one of those rare political events that transcends politics and touches upon universal issues affecting each of us.

We each, after all, face the same basic question: what are our real priorities in the face of death? If learning of an immediate threat to our health would cause us to reduce our workload, place a higher priority on love and relationship, or switch mates, why put it off just because we have not yet received a formal diagnosis of a terminal illness? We all have a terminal illness called death, after all, and it will arrive sooner than we want. Does it make sense to rearrange our lives now in accordance with this reality? What would it be like to live AS IF we, too, faced the threat of death in the relatively near future?

Not all of us, of course, would dramatically change our lives were we to receive a potentially terminal diagnosis. But the Mayor's decision points up the importance of making our choices consciously.

One wonders whether Hillary Clinton or Rick Lazio, for example, have reflected even a moment on the deeper issues posed by the Mayor's withdrawal. Would living as if she would die cause the First Lady to spend more time not less on repairing her troubled marriage? Would Mr. Lazio, who proudly reports that he is a family man, still embark on a course which will bring enormous stress to his family in the coming year? If intimations of mortality caused the Mayor to withdraw, why would not the same arguments apply for his opponent and successor?

This question was raised poignantly by Jackie McEntee, a psychologist who was dying of leukemia. She reported that her life had been so tranformed by receiving a terminal diagnois 3 years earlier that she would rather have lived a few years this new way than 25 more as she had been living before. "I call this my 'Year of Ecstasy.' Sublime, incredible things have happened. That's why I wouldn't go back. Even though my previous life was good, it was not the bliss, the splendor, the ecstasy of how I live now," McEntee stated. "Well, I've learned to live fully now. And it's my deepest wish that everyone else will also -- and without having to go through this kind of illness," she added.

The Mayor is not the first political figure to suddenly realize he hadn not been living fully when faced with a serious illness. Paul Tsongas dropped out of the Senate and also placed his highest priority on his family and getting healthy after his diagnosis. Political strategist Lee Atwater repudiated his snarling and amoral political career after contracting cancer.

But Mayor Guiliani's turnaround is particularly dramatic given his history as an unusually mean-spirited, Type A politician, his ongoing high visibility as Mayor, his uncommon hypocrisy in calling upon others to obey moral rules he himself flagrantly violated, and the remarkably insightful self-examination he revealed in his sudden decision to drop out of the Senate race.

Guiliani has become a powerful symbol of how our lives can be transformed by engaging our mortality. The real significance of his experience is not the questions it raises about him but ourselves. If so successful and polarizing a figure can so dramatically change direction upon facing his mortality, what about the rest of us? What questions does his experience raise for our own lives?

Reseting Priorities

Most of us find it hard to identify with reformed alcoholics or drug addicts who report they went so low that they had no choice but to change. But when someone like Mayor Guiliani says that "politics is important, but it is by far not the most important thing in life. Your life is more important, your health is more important, the people you love, your family, the people that are close to you and really care about you," it challenges us all. Like he, our problem may be not that our lives are too miserable but too comfortable, giving us little incentive to change even though we may not living up to our highest potentials.

The Mayor stated that "I used to think the core of me was in politics. It isn't." He said that "when you feel your mortality and your humanity you realize that, that the core of you is first of all being able to take care of your health, and second your obligations (to) the people that love you and you love." How many of us might also reconceive what our core is -- focusing not only on our physical but spiritual and emotional health, placing a higher priority on inner growth than outer success -- were we to face rather than deny our mortality?

A Focus on Feeling and Love

Mayor Giuliani's profession rewards cutting off feelings. Mrs. Clinton, for example, is widely admired for her public stoicism in reaction to her husband's misbehavior. And the Mayor himself was particularly known for his lack of feeling, for example when he released Patrick's Dorismund's criminal record after the unarmed man was shot.

His confrontation with death, however, has clearly made feelings and love a far greater priority in his life. "I tend to think now that love is more important than I thought it was", he told Tim Russert on "Meet The Press" the day after his press conference, which probably included more uses of the word "love" than all his previous public outlings combined. "I have very good friends and people that I love and love me but, being the mayor of the city that I love very much, people that I've always had a great deal of love for," ran one typical sentence.

Perhaps there is a lesson for the rest of us in the fact that even so emotionally cut-off a figure as the Mayor can discover that deep feeling and love are key values in his life when faced with his mortality.

Acknowledgement of Vulnerability, Commitment to Personal Growth

The Mayor said his reaction to his diagnosis was that "you confront your limits, you confront your mortality. You realize you're not a superman and you're just a human being ... I'm going to think about how I can be better as a person." If the Mayor isn't Superman, who of us is? What can WE do to become better people?

Increased Compassion and Empathy

The Mayor was famous for working long hours, neglecting his family and loved ones, and ignoring the plight of minorities. One of the most remarkable aspects of his withdrawal announcement, therefore, was his newfound empathy for minorities and those who need healthcare. He said he would seek to "overcome some of the barriers that maybe I placed there. Many people in the city have felt a big change. But it hasn't reached everyone in this city. And I'm going to dedicate myself to trying to figure out how we can get them to feel that too ... I'm going to try and reach out to more people to try to help more people."

He added he would "see what I can do about increasing the number of people that are covered with health care. I mean, one of the things that I feel is a tremendous sense of compassion for the people that have to make decisions like this alone."

Few of us do as much as we might to put ourselves in others' shoes. Perhaps voluntarily facing our mortality can provide new perspectives which can lead us to do so, enriching not only others' lives but our own.

Cleaning up Relationships

The most unusual aspect of the Mayor's reaction to his health crisis was his abrupt decision to publicly clean up his relationship with his wife, Donna Hanover. While this decision appears heartless, it is also understandable. The Mayor is not the first to find that increased awareness of mortality leads to a desire to lead a more authentic and less hypocritical personal life.

What about the rest of us? To what extent are we leading messy lives, which drain both us and those around os of vitality, energy and truth? Do we need to wait for a terminal illness to clean things up?

Finding Good in Bad

Giuliani hinted that he had already had the insight that some good might come out of his illness: "and there is something good that comes out of this. A lot of good things come out of it. I think I understand myself a lot better. I think I understand what's important to me better. Maybe I'm not completely there yet. I would be foolish to think that I was in a few weeks, but I think I'm heading in that direction."

It is a truism that while we devote much of our energy in life to avoiding unpleasant situations, we often most grow as a result of facing pain. Are there ways we could benefit in our own lives from confronting hard truths rather than continuing to deny or avoid them? Could the increased anxiety or fear that might come from looking at our mortality, for example, lead to a greater good?

It will be interesting to follow Mayor Giuliani's career in the years to come. The history of those who have vowed to change their lives following a heart attack, only to return to their old ways upon recovery, is not encouraging. Mr. Giuliani may well be reincarnated as a tough, unfeeling candidate for Governor some years hence.

Whatever happens with the Mayor, however, is secondary. The real question is whether others, including ourselves, can face the questions his experience raises, and answer them in our own lives. It is not easy to live as if we are dying. But, as Mr. Giuliani's story indicates, the alternative may be even worse.

Fred Branfman served as Director of Research for Governor Jerry Brown, Tom Hayden, and Senator Gary Hart's think tank. He is presently based in Santa Barbara and writes on psychological issues.