During the last year I have been away from the chemistry blogosphere and immersed in reading classic literature and acting in a few plays. I won’t take up bandwidth with a lot of details, but suffice it to say that I would urge young technocrats to spend a bit of time reading some classic literature or doing some artistic activity. In my case, I have a special fondness for 19th century literature. Not a minute I’ve spent immersed in Balzac, Pushkin, Gogol, or the earlier writings of Cicero, brings even the slightest regret for time not spent with chemistry.
Of course, my threadbare-epiphany is in no way novel and barely worth mentioning. Many people spread their wings and glide over the wonderment of new lands. For me, I have simply chosen to spend the time doing so. Scientific greatness is not in the hand I was dealt. There will be no reactions or campus buildings named in my honor. This is the fate for most of us, really. Only it takes some time to come to that realization. Loosening one’s grip on ambition is not gladly done. Those of us who have gotten advanced degrees are, in a very real sense, freaks who have a fiendishly tight grasp and a capacity for extended abuse (you know it’s true!).
The reality of aging is that in the footrace of one’s career, faster, younger and hungrier runners begin to catch up and surpass you. This is actually essential for the continuation of scientific progress and the extension of this age of enlightenment. The trick lies in not allowing one’s vanity to accentuate this natural progression in some humiliating way. The merits of silence become increasingly apparent with age to those who can manage it.
This cancer business has the effect of telescoping one’s life in the sense that the end-game once obscured by the haze of time begins to take shape as would an approaching stranger in the fog. It is the fear of this approaching stranger that causes the afflicted to grasp for any and all treatments, clinical or mystical. At some point it should become clear that spending down your retirement and impoverishing your survivors is destructive and selfish. But you cannot rely on your physician to help with this. Your final act as a mature adult is to decide when to call off treatment. This is not accepting defeat. It is acknowledging biological reality.
Cancer has a large head-game aspect and one’s internal monolog must constantly chant the importance of living in the moment and keeping a cheerful attitude. Those around you will be grateful, even if they do not outright say so.