How to Live

‘I have nothing to live for,’ I idly thought to myself during a Sunday morning leg stretch through the shady trails of Hainault Country Park.

Ok – before you panic and plead with Samaritans to give me a call or rush to head me off at Beachy head, there’s no need. Let me explain.

In that moment, I was perfectly happy and simply content. I wouldn’t have minded dropping dead in that instant. Well – I suppose the first person on the scene could have paused my Garmin and uploaded the interrupted run to Strava as they made sure I was dead – I’d have been eternally grateful.  But apart from that, I’m lucky to be able to say I don’t really have any unfinished business. If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, you won’t have to call ghostbusters, because any disturbance in the force is unlikely to be brought on by my ethereal residue seeking closure.

You see – I don’t have a significant other or dependents and never will now. My family is getting on just fine and will when I’m gone. The same can be said for friends, acquaintances or anyone reading this blog. I’m under no illusion – there may be a moment’s pause for some when I’m gone but the world will nonetheless continue to rotate. Sure – there are a few things I’d like to do with the months and/or years that remain. If they come off, some of them would constitute significant achievements for a person who isn’t so ill, let alone a cancer patient. But if none of these hopefully conceived projects come off, it’s not like anyone’s going to die! Well – except for me, but we know about that already.

I’ve lost count of the number of times  I’ve been called unlucky, often accompanied by a disbelieving head shake. But that depends on your perspective, and mine’s always been a bit different.
“What are you going to do with your teacher’s salary? How many bikes do you need exactly?”
This memorable quote comes from a friend and colleague who has five children and it could be argued she has a point. I could have used my relatively secure income to do what most others have: form a stable home base (usually in conjunction with a life partner) and bring up a family. When that partner left the scene, I could have found another and meandered through middle age accumulating young mouths to feed and so the life cycle continues.

But it’s pretty fortunate that I haven’t. Because, with a terminal cancer diagnosis, that gift of stability and financial security would have become a curse. I don’t have to worry about what happens when I die because absolutely no one looks to me for that kind of support. Knowing people who are in a similar position, but do have these considerations, I can’t help feeling like the luckiest man alive. Others are focussed on staying healthy enough to see their children grow up and make sure they are provided for when the provider is gone. By contrast, I simply have to keep enough in the bank to feed myself and when things get worse and gainful employment becomes a thing of the past, I’ll be able to take my pension early and be comfortable enough.

So not only can I focus on doing the things I enjoy whilst I still can but I have the luxury of being able to essentially live as I please and according to the values that I try to hold myself to. I’ve thought a lot about this because, well I’m going to die by them too and if I make any serious lapse in value judgement or really poor decisions, it’s unlikely I’ll live long enough to make amends and repair my reputation.

This is turning into management speak – ‘I’m a values driven cancer patient!’ I’d better explain what that actually means! The first is effort. No one likes making mistakes or failing but as long as I give something my best shot, that’s ok. Fear of failure has led to some interesting effort based decision making over the years e.g. running 3,000 miles within one of them or forgoing life balance or sleep in order to get through a busy concert season. It may be that I end up choosing the wrong priorities or failing to dedicate enough time to get something done when it needs to be. But never let it be said that I didn’t give it my best. Endurance, resilience, perseverance, grit, dogged determination – they all amount to the same thing really. Whatever you’ve got to do, give it your all.

It could be argued that all the other principles on which to live a good life stem from this – it’s just a matter of how to allocate those efforts. Another friend and colleague tells the children and, indeed, everyone:
“If you’re going to be anything in this world, choose to be kind.”
Of course we all have our exasperated moments. But how unfortunate would be if that value slipped on the last occasion you met someone, especially if you care about them? Well it’s likely that I’ve already met a good few good people for the last time. I try to be a good person, stick to my word and be supportive when I can. But I can’t help thinking that last(ing) impressions count as much as first ones at this point. How do I want to be remembered?

Others have the legacy of significant achievements or a generation brought into the world. I don’t have to worry about any of that stuff.  But unencumbered by these considerations, what do I have left? 

Well I can try hard, especially to be nice. That’s enough for me – it really is – and as long as I can honestly say that, it doesn’t matter if I die tomorrow, next week, month, year, decade (ok – not decade). That’s what makes me, me. This isn’t the easiest route to eternal happiness. But having come to terms with this, I don’t see why I can’t die happy.


  1. Dear Nathaniel,

    That is a great place to be. I reached it at the 10th year mark of remission. Then I lived on and new (inconsequential) troubles began to plague me. But stay in that zone as long as you live, it’s a good place to be, the place of true freedom.

    PS Do whatever you want with your salary. Bitter moms (I was one once) should be ignored.

    • Congratulations on that!
      There’s no bitterness – the conversation was just banter as far as I remember it!


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