“Live strong” is a common slogan among cancer patients. I think I understand the slogan’s appeal, and I admire the spirit that lies behind it. But it doesn’t fit my experience, and I suspect I’m not alone.
Reduced life expectancy aside, the chief consequence of stage 4 cancers—even more, the chief consequence of their treatment—is weakness, not strength. Cancer and chemotherapy, taken together, are exhausting. Walking up a flight of stairs feels to me like running a couple of miles would feel to a typical out-of-shape 50-year-old, which is what I would be if I were healthy. All mental exercises are several times harder than they used to be. Concentrating takes real effort, and most of the time, I can’t pull it off—I have to read things twice (at least) in order to understand them once. My mind is two steps behind whatever conversation I’m in; I have to scramble to keep up. I feel half dead, as though a large fraction of whatever I was is gone, never to return.
In short, I can’t live strong, because there isn’t much strength left in me. But I can live weak.
What does that mean? Plenty of people could answer that question better than I can. I’m a beginner at this enterprise; I’m still learning the most elementary lessons. But there is one lesson I think I’ve learned, and it’s crucial. The lesson begins with the virtue of low standards.
Low standards sound more like vice than virtue. I spent most of my working life trying to set the bar as high as possible. Aim high—even if you don’t reach the target, you’ll do more and better than you would if the target wasn’t there. The higher the bar, the better the performance. For many years, I lived by that principle, as do most of my friends in a wide range of professions. Twenty-first century Americans push ourselves, and we push hard.
Only I can’t push anymore. The bar is no longer just out of reach; it’s on a different planet than the one where I live. Not so long ago, aiming high felt like a good motivational exercise, like an effective locker room pep talk. Now, it feels like telling a paralytic he can run around the block if only he’d try a little harder: the enterprise is at once cruel and pointless, and it motivates nothing more than despair. Maybe a better way to put the point is this: All my life, I’ve tried to do my best. Now, it seems that my best is gone; it doesn’t exist anymore. So I do what I can. I try not to aim at targets, and I try not to measure myself. Some days, I can’t read or write anything serious. Some days, I can. I do what I can, when I can. The bar has disappeared.
An interesting thing happens when you put aside all the yardsticks and just do what’s possible. Motivation changes. Work is no longer about achievement and reward. It’s more about love and beauty. There is something very powerful—C.S. Lewis might have called it deep magic—about working for love of the work itself: labor becomes less labored, more gift than obligation. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to put words on a computer screen—but the ability to do it now, even if only sometimes, is more precious than I can describe. I don’t know whether that makes the work better, but I’m pretty sure it makes me better.
Likewise, there is something inexpressibly lovely—notice that word’s first syllable—about ordinary tasks done for love of the tasks, and done while in the grip of a disease that seems determined to make those tasks impossible. It’s the beauty of a runner’s last marathon, the beauty of an aging athlete’s final game, the game he pours his soul into, as the best artists do in their best work. It may not be lovely to anyone else, and that’s OK by me: cancer is an ugly disease, in every possible way. No wonder people recoil from it. But in the midst of all its life-sapping, soul-destroying ugliness, something amazing can happen: the most ordinary things, the most mundane tasks, take on value and beauty beyond anything I could have imagined. Whether or not anyone else sees it, I see it. And that’s enough.
“Live strong” sounds to me like denial: I’m not strong, and pretending I am can’t change that fact. But I can live weak: do what I can, however small and ordinary, day by day. Some of the living—I wish it were more, but at the same time, I thank God for the “some”—is surprisingly good.