Lying almost lifeless in the hospital, one specialist after another speculated what was wrong with me. I admit: the fear of dying felt worse than dying itself.
I was just nineteen and already missing people I would lose forever. I thought about loved ones I would never get to know and moments I could have lived that were now fading.
Finally, the one specialist everyone was trying to keep out unavoidably walked in. “I’m going to be your oncologist and my job is to keep you out of the ground,” my doctor said.
He seemed old and he squinted over his glasses when he talked. He swooped in quickly, without warning, and started pressing forcefully around my body. His fingers felt like cold mechanical instruments whose purpose was to locate cancer.
He stepped back and held up some scans against the light, making sure he had felt all the right places. The cancer was in my neck, both lungs, and inside my chest.
“Stage four. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” he said without appearing to really believe it.
I didn’t say anything. Sometimes a news is so big and it makes you feel so small that, you feel like you should just stay silent.
Finding a Reason for Being
The threat of death tends to make people a lot more aware of their lives and I recalled reading, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” (Nietzsche)
So, while my doctor put my body though extreme punishment over the next year, I developed a deep desire to find meaning in all of it. I believed that if I found that meaning, I could survive anything.
As he hammered near-lethal doses of chemotherapy into my body, through needles in my arms and ports in my chest, I worked to find my why—the purpose that would give my life meaning after cancer.
And if cancer was to kill me first, well, then at least I’d die in the midst of trying to discover my reason for being.
“You’re young. You can handle it,” my doctor explained. “Older patients can’t survive this dose. Be thankful.”
The Secret to Long Life
There’s a rainy subtropical island 500 miles south of Japan called Okinawa. More people above the age of 100 inhabit Okinawa than anywhere else in the world.
Not only do Okinawans live much longer than the rest of us, they also suffer far fewer chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and they are happier. (Remember, Okinawa was the exact place where 200,000 innocent people lost their lives at the end of World War II.)
When researchers ask the centenarians in Okinawa their secret to a long and happy life, they’ll tell you the secret is finding your ikigai.
It’s hard to define ikigai with just one sentence, even after years of reading about it. My best attempt to explain ikigai is:
“The happiness found in always being busy.” It’s the reason why we get up in the morning and it gives each and every day a sense of purpose. It gives our lives meaning and helps us find reasons to live.
And that’s what I desperately needed: a reason to live. Because when you’re terminally ill and being alive is more painful and depressing than death, then the best gift you can receive is a reason to live, not continuing to live.
Follow Your Ikigai
To find our ikigai, we must ask ourselves 4 questions:
-What do I love?
-What am I good at?
-What can I be paid for?
-What does the world need?
I believe everyone on earth has a purpose that awaits them. If we don’t know what it is yet, our mission should be to discover it through a patient search.
Finding it will bring satisfaction, happiness, and meaning to our lives. It will develop a passion for life and others.
My greatest fear in life? Reaching the end and realizing that I lived a life of little or no consequence. Finding my ikigai not only helped me figure out my reason for being, it also helped me fight an incurable disease and come out of it better than I was when I went in. Twice.
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai hidden deep inside them. Follow your ikigai.
To a happy and purposeful life,