“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
Randy Pausch was an American professor at Carnegie Mellon University. As many professors are, he had been asked to give a theoretical "last lecture" about his experience of life and what he would like his legacy to be. But unlike most such lectures, in a sense it really was his last. He had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and did not have long to live.
When he started speaking, he glibly apologized for looking so healthy, and said that actually, despite the fact he was dying, he was in better shape than most of his audience. Then, just to make the point, he dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups.
I saw the last lecture back in 2008. Pausch was already dead when I watched his lecture, but watching him on stage, dying but truly alive, and hearing him talk passionately about life, made a huge impact on me. I was talking about it for months afterwards.
I have read the book based on the lecture a number of times. I’ve never felt able to watch the lecture again, but the book is something I have returned to over and over.
As the stunt with the push-ups showed, Pausch was a born showman. But he had also done a lot of learning in his 47 years, and was keen to say goodbye in a way that passed some of it on, to his colleagues, students, and friends, but mostly to his wife and three young children.
He spoke about many things. But the thing that struck me the most was the limited time we all have. We don’t all have a terminal cancer diagnosis, but we do all have bodies that will fail eventually. None of us know if we will live another day, or another fifty years. We can make educated guesses, but none of us really know if today will be our last.
In the past, health is something that I have tended to take for granted. It is only over the last few years that I have slowly come to appreciate it. The old cliché about how we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone is very true, and as I have gone through this roller-coaster ride of depression and anxiety, I spent a lot of time angry and frustrated about how terrible I felt.
But very slowly I am coming to appreciate the times when I am doing well. I don’t know if I will ever fully recover, ever be really happy. So I can’t base my peace of mind around that.
Sometimes I think about Awakenings, and how the patients in that movie were fortunate to have the recovery they did, even though it was temporary. Like those patients, I have to seize the moments I have and use them to the best of my abilities.
When it comes down to it, all life is temporary anyway, so even if my depression disappeared tomorrow, the fundamental situation would still be the same. Limited time, limited energy, large challenges.
In the introduction to his book, Pausch noted that engineering is not about perfect solutions, it is about doing the best one can with limited resources. Perhaps I should accept that and live my life with that in mind. It just might lead to me being a little easier on myself and others, and to a life that is a little more enjoyable.