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The other side of death

POSTED October 7, 2011 9:24 p.m.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

 When he said those words at the 2005 Stanford commencement ceremony, Steve Jobs thought he had been cured. "I'm fine now," he said. Describing his diagnosis and surgery the year before, and his great good fortune that his was the rare form of pancreatic cancer that didn't leave you with only months to live, he said he hoped "it's the closest I get for a few more decades."

 He was wrong about that. But he was right about the rest.

 On the radio on the way home, all the commentators were talking about Steve Jobs' legacy — from icons to iPads, from Macs to iPhones. It is a long list. Genius, they said over and over. Visionary. All true.

 I don't have an iPhone. I don't use a Mac. Until recently, I stuck with my Kindle. Even now, my iPad sits mostly by my bed.

 For me, at least, it's not about the products.

 Life isn't fair. Fifty-six is too young. Leaving a wife and four young children to grow up on their own is all wrong. When my father died at 53, I felt horribly cheated. I would look around at men decades older than him, men who lacked my father's character and compassion, men who were smug and selfish and all the things he wasn't, and I would feel angry — yes, angry — that they were walking down the street and my father was buried in a cemetery plot. What kind of God does that? I spent years feeling cheated. It did not bring my father back.

 When my friend Kath got sick last year with a rare form of cancer, she was amazed. She didn't expect it. Don't you worry every day about being diagnosed with some terrible disease, another friend asked her. She didn't. By that point, she had lost her father, her mother and her sister. "I'm not afraid of dying," she told me one night as I sat with her in the hospital. "I'm afraid of not being able to really live." She died a few weeks later.

 We all struggle to find the balance between life and death.

 My mother lived to be 80, but for most of her life, battered by depression, the glass was always half-empty. None of the things she worried most about happened until she reached the end of a long life. What did happen was that her constant worry robbed her of so many of the joys she might have found in life.

 Knowing that we all face death and that it is unpredictable, unknowable and, yes, so often unfair can rob life of meaning — or make each day more meaningful. In the end, like so many things, what we can control is not the ending, but how we get there; not how we die, but how we live.

 Steve Jobs' legacy, for me at least, is all about courage and perseverance, about dignity and determination, about the joyous pursuit of passion. It is about facing death and choosing life.

 I inherited my mother's genes. Some mornings I wake up overcome by anxiety and fear. And then I get out of bed. I am fine with pain. It is fear that can paralyze me — if I let it. No one's glass is really full: whether it is half-full or half-empty depends on how you see it.

"Death," Jobs told Stanford's graduates, "is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

May he rest in peace.

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