Isaac Asmiov explains in a memoir by his wife:

Homo sapiens alone of all the known objects in the universe can look forward to inevitable death; he alone can sigh for the might-have-beens. It is the penalty of humanity. Shall we accept the gifts of humanity; the consciousness of beauty; the exaltation of abstractions; the knowledge that makes gods of us; — and not accept the penalty, too?

To refuse the penalty is to refuse the gifts; to live in a false world of our own making is to deprive ourselves of the real world—and in the real world, with all its faults, has a grandeur and glory for which there is no substitute.

The chapter in the book this came from is “Imagination” – and to put this all in context, it comes from a section that discusses our telling of tales whether they be poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. That we are the only living species on this earth that can tell those tales since we are the only ones capable of the grief of the past and the dread of the future.

It’s a bit of a devil’s bargain – light doesn’t exist without dark, joy doesn’t exist without pain, love doesn’t exist without indifference. We need one to understand the other, to see the other.

This was brought home recently in a discussion among cancer patients and caregivers about diagnosis, treatment, and the long recovery, when someone asked “when can I be called a survivor?”.

The actual definition is that you’re a survivor at the moment of diagnosis. You have cancer. You’re still here.

But the question itself is much more complex since the diagnosis of cancer carries with it the deepest threat—and greatest dread—that we’ve ever felt. Because it is at the moment of diagnosis that we suddenly realize the most sudden and deepest grief of loss. The loss of what we have and what we might have in the future.

It is also in that moment, that we become human.

And as we become human, we become vulnerable.

And as we become vulnerable, we are open to all that is around us, both the light and the dark.

Some of us are changed physically more than others. Others face more physical difficulty post-treatment than others. But all are changed emotionally and are more aware not only of the difficulty of what we face, but the wonder of drawing breath and living in the moment.

The cancer patient that asks “when am I a survivor” is really asking “am I going to die”. With that question, comes the heavy burden of the grief of loss, but ultimately the sudden recognition of the preciousness of what we have. The future is important but we also become more demanding of the here and now.

No one can tell the future. No seer, no physician. But one thing for certain is that the sun will rise and the sun will set and in between is the grandeur of all that we have and all that we are capable of.

And all the tales that can be told…

 cassatGathering Fruit
Mary Cassatt, 1893

[Book excerpt from Notes for a Memoir: On Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing by Janet Jeppson Asimov…]