Amidst the joyous celebrations of commencements I remember Anabel, who left this world on September 22, 2013, at the age of 41, leaving behind her twin sister Isabel and a legacy of joy, wisdom, and compassion. I know that she lives on because I constantly pass on the life lessons I learned from her. And I know the power these lessons have for young people hungry for guidance in making sense of the hardships they endure. When I told a thousand high school students what Ana had taught me they jumped up from their seats applauding emotionally and enthusiastically.
My Stanford students receive her messages more quietly and with deep reflection, perhaps because of the poignant realization that Ana was once one of them. She lived in their dorms, ate in their dining halls, and bicycled around campus just like them. Until last year Ana used to come to my classes to talk with students. In one of the most powerful encounters they ever experienced she told them her story of living from childhood with cystic fibrosis and enduring a lifetime of numerous hospitalizations. She described her gradual loss of breath and the miracle of not just one but two double lung transplants, and how she has lived as long as she can remember in the shadow of a life threatening illness.
I wondered how the students saw her. Was she a sad reminder of pain and suffering? Did they distance themselves thinking, "She's unfortunate, I'm not." Did they pity her, feel sorry for her? But none of these thoughts appeared in the reflective journals they keep for my class. Instead, they wrote of how inspiring Ana was, how courageous she was. Though they asked, "Why did one person have to suffer so much?" they realized that this question did not weigh Ana down. Instead, she repeatedly affirmed life. She valued the simple things, believing that “we are here to connect with each other, to revel in the human spirit.
Ana told the students that she and Isa learned to make the most out of living and dying at the same time and while they could never have complete control over their illness their attitude could determine whether they saw the glass as half empty or half full.
“A little defiance is good medicine. If we internalized all these statistics we probably would not have lived this long. There were basically two ways that we could react to dying; we could either move away from it or we could move toward it. When we moved away from it we did what most people do, we denied it, we buried our heads in the sand, we pretended that we weren't going to die. We wanted, after all, to be normal just like everyone else. We studied hard. We had big goals. We planned for the future. We went to Stanford and borrowed thousands and thousands of dollars in loans, thinking, “We’re not going to have to pay this back!”
Ana's lesson to all of us is simple. "By living alongside death for so long, I have truly lived. By being aware of limited time, I have not wasted any time, my life has been better for it. Too bad it has taken illness to realize this. To me, everyone wishes to feel love and connection, to be part of something great, to make an impact, to be inspired, to leave the world with a sense of peace and satisfaction."
I tell students that Ana's life inspires me to live each day the best I can and rather than denying and numbing ourselves to the difficult reality of death, it is better to face it and accept it. In this way each and every moment is a new and precious thing, lived with the awareness that this might be the last time I will experience such a thing. I ask the students to bring themselves to my class with such an awareness and appreciation for their opportunities in life.
I find that they easily relate to Ana's message as they too are trying to find meaning in life's struggles. They also deal with the constant pressures they feel in school, socially, and with the fear brought on by their increased awareness of their mortality. Students tell me how much Ana has taught them about living with acceptance and appreciation for what we have been given, and how this way of living gives them the courage to live more fully, with gratitude for the small things, and acceptance of their own and others’ frailties and vulnerabilities. And perhaps this is our way of finding meaning in Ana's life's struggles that extend beyond her individual existence to benefit the lives of others.
Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu teaches psychology at Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University and is the author of When Half is Whole, Multicultural Encounters, and Synergy, Healing and Empowerment.
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