A talk by the late Dr Richard Teo, a cosmetic surgeon, led me to write my thoughts below.
If there were anyone who lived the archetypical jet-set lifestyle, it had to be him. Earning millions annually, he had got it all. Fast cars. Hot chicks. And bungalows.
Then, in march 2011, while he was in his gym exercising, doing the full stretch, he felt some back pain. He then took a scan the next day and was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal lung cancer! The cancer has spread to his brain and other vital organs.
Imagine that, gym one day and death knell the next. That diagnosis changed Dr Teo's life completely. He became serious with God, denounced the reckless living, and adopted a new set of belief based on faith, hope and all things eternal.
Although he lost the fight late this year, he left a powerful legacy behind. Riding on this, I wrote about how I felt and here goes.
"Conversion is a funny business. I know funny is not the best of words to use. But it's funny not in a comical sense. It is in fact more ironic than comedic. I think many people like Dr Teo who converts (or in his case, is convicted) because the realness of his mortality came down upon him like a ton of bricks.
Imagine how different his "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" of a life would be if not for the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer? Would he have come to his senses without cancer? I know I am skating on the "thin ice" of insensitivity here but I'm just thinking out loud, befuddling through.
Often, it takes something like cancer to put an emergency brake to our break-neck materialism ride on the highway of insatiable desires. Nothing short of imminent death to wake us up from our dream-state reality of personal excesses and self indulgences.
Well, you can say that it is much better than dying as an unrepentant hedonist, right? Better late than never, so they say.
Alas, I think a wasted life is not so much dying as an unrepentant hedonist but living as one. Considering Dr Teo's life, I began to ask myself: How do you wake people like him up in the absence of a life-threatening illness? Why is it that the Grim Reaper does the job more thoroughly than a Rick Warren or a John Maxwell?
The truth is, our own mortality brings out a reality that scares us to death. And because death is a stone's throw away, we reorganize and we re-prioritize with missionary zeal. So, seen in this angle, I think time is either our greatest ally or our greatest enemy.
Without sounding too simplistic, the equation I see is a strange one: The less time we have, the more meaning we make out of our life. Conversely, the more time we have, the less meaning we make out of it. Shouldn't time be a tool rather than a threat? Quite ironic and sad?
So, is this how we "wake" some people up? Deceiving them into believing, with convincing medical support, that they have one year to live? And then, like a wound-up energizer rabbit, we stand back and watch them frantically making life-defining U-turns, amending their past wrongs, giving to the poor, and most likely, becoming a God-fearing believer.
After one year, when the well intended joke is exposed, and when they finally experienced a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in life, will they thank us for the irony of the joke or sue us for the tyranny of it?
Steve jobs once gave a speech to the graduates of Stanford U and said that he lives his life as if he's going to die tomorrow. In other words, he lived on the fringes of mortality, milking everyday for all it's worth as if it was his last.
Wow, I guess that accounts for all his accomplishments. I guess that also accounts for all his moodiness. While he was veritably a great innovator, he was also a crusher of the many spirit who worked under him.
Herein lies our horned dilemma: How do we ensure that we value life by making meaningful connection without devaluing it by seeking self-recognition?
Honestly, I have no answer to that question. I only know that the greatest enemy to living a meaningful life is to embody a self-deluded sense of "longevity". This applies to the young and the young at heart, especially the opulent. This delusion breaks the levee of facts-based reality and sends a floodgate of self-invincibility and self-worship.
Awashed in self-importance, we readily lose sight of what is truly important in life. In other words, we get drowned in our own accomplishments. Sadly, we immortalized our achievements and neutralized our existence. Or, is such trade-off unavoidable?
Maybe the solution is to have a sharpened sense of mortality. To have a sense of how fragile life can be and how death is just a whisper away. To not take our loved ones for granted. To take things less seriously. To give more than we take. To love more than we hate. And lastly, and this is close to my heart, to be less moody and more "honky dory" (that is, to not see the glass as full half or half empty but to always look out for the "jug" that faithfully fills the glass up to its desired level).
It's difficult to end here because it feels like a feel-good, cliched-ish screed by me. But I guess every life is unique because it has its unique start and unique end. Like the body that finds its own level of homeostasis (balance), we too must find our own.
For me, I am still searching, exploring, and sometimes even experimenting; but never giving up. Because the last thing I want to do is to live my life heavy on one side and light on the other and then to discover at my death bed that I have been heavy on myself and light on others. Cheers out."