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Endings

October 14, 2011

Steve Jobs is dead. It’s still something I’m trying to process. I don’t choke up as badly now as I did when it first happened.

It’s not because I’m an Apple fanboy. I have two Macs on my desk, but they’re for work, and I loathe turning them on because the Apple dev tools are so much worse than the ones on Windows. I don’t even like using them as computers. I’m too used to how things work on Windows. And I don’t have stories about how my first computer was an Apple or anything, because I’ve never personally owned one, and the only ones I used as a kid were Canadian clones at a friend’s house.

It’s not because the world has lost a great man, which it arguably has. I don’t have any personal knowledge of the kind of guy Steve Jobs was, but I do know he didn’t just dominate markets, he invented them. I’m a Windows-head, but Windows wouldn’t be here without the Mac, and wouldn’t be as good as it is without the continuous competition from Apple. MP3 players didn’t take off until the iPod, and it’s still the best one out there. Smartphones wouldn’t be what they are now without the iPhone. The only people who wanted tablets were tablet manufacturers until the iPad got it right, and now everyone else is playing catch-up even though they’d been trying for years before.

No, the reason his death is so affecting (to me, anyway) is that it’s another person taken too soon by cancer. Character actor Charles Napier died the same day as Jobs, but he was 75. Dennis Ritchie, one of the inventors of both C and UNIX, died a few days later after a long illness, but he was 70. Those are good, long lives, and while they are still losses, at least they weren’t huge surprises.

But cancer in your 50s (or 40s in my case) is too soon. The pancreatic cancer that took Steve Jobs was a less aggressive form, with survival measured in years instead of months, but it still took him at 56, far too soon for anyone. Cancer this early means a shorter life than he or I were anticipating.

I’m on the last day of my chemo right now, but even with the chemo and the surgery, the odds are still 30% that my cancer will come back within 5 years. Better than half, but still not great. And until I get the PET scan in a couple weeks and then come back to see the oncologist in a month, I won’t even know if we got all the cancer this time.

I’m not anxious to die. Nobody is. Everybody (or nearly everybody) wants, even expects, to live to a ripe old age. And yet, death is what motivates us to do the great things in life. Everyone is quoting from Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford shortly after his cancer diagnosis. In it, he says, “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.”

And that’s the real trick. Our time here is limited, and we don’t know when the end will come. A friend of ours lost his sister in a car accident recently. I’m sure she had plans and dreams, but things can change suddenly. The knowledge that death is coming shouldn’t make us live in fear. It should motivate us to live while we can. All the reasons I don’t want to die are selfish ones: I want to see my kids grow up, I want to spend time with my wife, I’d like to have time to travel, to read, to enjoy the world.

And I could let death be the Damocles sword dangling over me, paralyzing me and keeping me from my joy. But if Paul is right and God hasn’t given me a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind, then death, either impending or eventual, becomes the motivator for me to make the time for the things that matter.

As a wise wizard once said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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