What Can Dying Teach Us About Living?
One observation regularly made at Escape by our members and our team is that often it takes a momentous event in someone’s life to force them towards clarity.
It has also been noted that this is crazy; that we should have to suffer in order to give ourselves permission to take stock, think in a lucid manner and access our fundamental wants.
Over the holiday season I had the extreme privilege of reading Kate Gross’s book Late Fragments, currently sitting atop many bestseller lists. Kate began her career at 10 Downing Street, working with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as the youngest ever senior civil servant. By 30 she was CEO of a charity working in Africa, a wife and the mother of twin boys. Aged thirty-four she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. Tragically Kate died on Christmas day.
She wrote Late Fragments as a gift to herself and her sons; as a reminder that she could create even as her body tried to self-destruct. Her book shares the clarity and wisdom gained by someone determined to find purpose in the final chunk of their life.
Kate’s writing is brilliant and her achievements staggering, however when it was first proposed by her publisher that we somehow utilise this book to form an essay I must admit I was a little sceptical as I wondered how closely this would tie in to Escape’s work within career transition and helping our members build their business ideas. By the time I had finished reading Late Fragments I understood it has everything to do with what we do here: our careers and our lives are so closely intertwined that insights into one unavoidably impact on the other.
I experienced my own personal earthquake at the age of 25 when I lost my mother, my entire family, to cancer. I experienced the ‘unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning’ that Kate refers to and I consequently went through a messy few years that included throwing the towel in on a hard-earned career that I thought I desperately wanted (funnily enough as a bureaucrat like Kate) as I tried to make sense of things. Up until this point life had always delivered fairly effortlessly and when reading Late Fragments I smiled wryly as Kate quotes Mike Tyson in saying that ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’ because it is a truth I know all too well.
Reading this book has been a revelation for me in many ways; I saw on paper many lessons I have learned from my own punch to the face but have not quite managed to articulate yet. Like many others, pouring out my innermost thoughts for general consumption on lessons learnt from a personal trauma clashes harshly with both an instinctively private nature and a nurtured instinct to shy away from crying poor me. Yet as I acknowledged earlier it should not be the case that we have to all reach rock bottom in order to realise these important lessons about our lives and careers. Thank goodness then that Kate had the selflessness to so eloquently and honestly express these sentiments even in her own darkest hour.
While I believe everyone should read this book immediately, there were a few themes that really grabbed me as being applicable in the way we conduct our careers and our lives that I would like to highlight here.
The first relates to the need to maintain objectiveness and ‘wonder’ in our past, present and future. Too often we slide into a dangerous pattern of dissatisfaction and apathy, both career-wise and at a personal level. At the very outset of Late Fragments, Kate emphasises what real happiness feels like when we are forced to look at life from a simpler angle:
…disease gives as well as it takes. Or, more accurately, we take from it even in the face of its efforts to take everything from us…What disease has stolen is the normality I took for granted and the future I would have had. But I have taken from it, too. For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which powerfully reasserts itself in the moments of wellness that punctuate a long illness. I can only explain this feeling as rather like your first time on Ecstasy, but with less pounding music and projectile vomiting. Whether it is emerging from my chemotherapy, or waking up after my operations, I have experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in an unexpected and new way. The first time this happened was in the incongruous setting of Ward L4, on the night after my first diagnosis. I opened a window in the middle of the night and leaned out to feel the cold autumn rain on my face, mingling with sharp, blissed-out tears. Then there is the way I feel about the people in my life. Billy and I have grown a love known only in power ballads, a depth of understanding and companionship which in any fair world would last a lifetime. My parents, now closer physically as well emotionally. Friendships which survived on the leftover bits of time have had a renaissance. And while I like to imagine that the world may have lost a future stateswomen, I have found my voice, and with my voice an intellectual and spiritual hinterland which had been lost for too long between the answering of emails and the wiping of tiny bottoms. I am woman, hear me roar. So despite all that has been and will be taken from us, I am happy. I am really, truly happy. These last years have been so strangely luminous, full of exploration, wonder and love. (Late Fragments, Introduction)
Another theme that resonated with me was the challenge, in both our lives and careers, of sticking to what actually rings true as opposed to getting swept along in the madness around us. Kate observes this when she says, ‘It is too easy, as an adult, to let life rush past with its business of succeeding, working, consuming, rearing. All of that can be joyful and fulfilling, I grant you. But it is so so easy in the rush of life to neglect your inner world.’
Work is a place where we are especially in danger of losing our sense of self:
…work is, for most of us, what we do with our outer selves, the grown-up tip of the iceberg that we show the world, that which takes up our time and energy. But in all that aching and striving and achieving it is so easy to lose sight of the things which truly define us. These things try to break through, insistently, because they matter. I wonder now if part of my motivation for such frequent travel to Africa was the opportunities it offered me to swim in exotic places: the methane filled waters of Lake Kivu, fearfully strong Atlantic seas at the inventively named River No. 2 Beach in Sierra Leone, dubious hotel swimming pools in Juba, Monrovia, Abuja, Conakry, Kigali, Blantyr and Jo’burg. (Late Fragments, Chapter 8)
The challenge issued is this:
What would your ten-year-old self think if they could see you now? Would your cantus firmus ring out, or has it been deadened by the intervening years? Perhaps your former self would wonder why you no longer sing, or draw, or play the piano, or run, or make model aeroplanes. They might be confused by your interest in reading emails, and ask why you are not out in the rain making a wigwam instead. Do not dismiss their questions. We all put away childish things (I am not mourning the My Little Pony collection I once treasured). But amongst the discarded toys is what once made us happy, those passions and talents we indulged as children but which have since been put aside. So it turns out you aren’t a chart-topping pop star, or a prize-winning artist. Making model aeroplanes doesn’t pay the mortgage. You are better suited to a Saturday-morning run around the park than the Olympics. Who cares? We don’t have to excel at something for it to matter, to make it part of who we are. Something doesn’t have to be functional to be important.
I wonder if the same genius of humanity that lets us normalise so quickly through pain and torment also allows the water to close over our passions. One day we can’t go a moment without writing poetry or playing the guitar; the next, those things are forgotten as if a distant dream. The quotidian routine, the rhythm of working life, anaesthetises so quickly.
…Chase your happiness. Chase it down till you know who you are, because time past can also be time present, and those same things which once burnished your life can do so again. (Late Fragments, Chapter 8)
Ultimately Kate is emphasising that fulfilment, in whatever sphere of life, is a choice. Personally this is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned in the last few years; that the only way to get out of the hole is to consciously choose to give the finger to whatever crappy situation you find yourself in and then claw your way out bit by bit.
Kate’s choice to take joy from her illness and to create even as her body failed her is staggering, but it is also proof that our minds are who we are. She remarks that, ‘It’s all down to choices. (More of) Gandalf’s wisdom: ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’…You can be responsible in how you do things, remembering that you are blessed with the gorgeousness of free will.’
Choice is also heavily reliant on acceptance and letting go of our control-freak tendencies. It is about understanding our situation, whether it be at work or in life, and deciding where we can go from there: ‘Realising life isn’t an arc which soars ever upwards providing you pay your dues and behave well is actually quite a release. Because then you can get on with the business of dealing with what you have, of finding meaning in suffering, and of seeing joy in the everyday.’
The other thing about choice is not to beat yourself up about the decisions you make (this is something I have a battle in my head about every day!). One thing we cannot control is the future and so we make choices based on the knowledge we have at the time. This comes with the one caveat highlighted above of actively making your own decisions rather than drifting into situations pre-determined for you. Kate highlights this in the career arena by paraphrasing Steve Jobs who noted that ‘the difficult thing about careers is that you can’t connect up the dots of your future in advance, only with the benefit of hindsight.’ It is so easy to look back and think what if, but it is one of the most dangerous and slippery slopes there are. In choosing our careers and reflecting upon where our choices have taken us in them it is so vital to remember that ‘…virtues and vices are not conferred on you by your job title. The dots that really matter aren’t the ones where you decide what you want to do, but how you want to be.’
I could wax lyrical about Kate’s book and the vital lessons it teaches forever, but that would spoil the joy of reading such an insightful and beautifully written ode to life. In a blog tribute about Kate, Damien McBride observes of her work in Downing Street that, ‘Watching her in action was like watching the best and brightest firework on Bonfire Night; that sense of not knowing what she was going to do next, but the surety that every fresh explosion would be better than the last.’ It seems to me that this final explosion truly was her ultimate piece of work. Please – go and read it.
Kate Gross died peacefully at home from colon cancer on 25 December 2014. Her book ‘Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Wonderful Life)’ is out now [Amazon UK, Amazon US], published in hardback by William Collins.
Kate finished writing her book in September and received finished copies a few weeks before her death. She leaves behind her devoted husband Billy Boyle and her five-year-old twin sons Isaac and Oscar.
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“No one can tell you what to do with your life and there is no “one-size-fits-all” escape that will lead you to happiness. What does work, however, is exposure to new ideas, likeminded people and a safe environment for you to figure out what it is you really want.”
– Rob Symington, Escape the City co-founder.