Chasing Daylight, by Eugene O’Kelly

Chasing Daylight, by Eugene O'Kelly

Chasing Daylight, by Eugene O’Kelly

“Maybe we’ll discover that dying is something not quite so frightening. That would certainly be a nugget worth passing on. Maybe we’ll discover that death is even something worth embracing.”

At the age of 53, Eugene O’Kelly had a fulfilling life: a successful career as the CEO of KPMG – one of the largest auditing firms on the planet –, a loving and supportive family, and a promising future. But everything changed suddenly when he learned that he had a terminal brain cancer and only about a hundred days to live.

In his beautiful book Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, Eugene O’Kelly shares the insightful lessons he begun to learn as he saw his life slowly to fade away. His story provides us with a set of powerful and useful messages, not only to help us become more accepting of death, but also to enjoy our life to the fullest.

Mr. O’Kelly was told that his cancer had no possible cure because it was in an advanced stage. He and his family were shocked on realizing that in just a few months, he would be departing this world. But instead of resisting the situation and spending the remainder of his life lamenting, Eugene decided to work with the situation that life had presented before him. Doctors told him that he would not suffer pain and that he would remain conscious until the very end, with practically full mental ability.  He took it as having a hundred days left to give closure to this step and prepare as much as he could for his next “adventure”, as he called it.

I was powerless to change the turn my life had taken. Fortunately, I had the power to make things better. I still had power over me.

I was still living on Earth; I wanted to enjoy my time here; I was trying to live Perfect moments and Perfect days. But I also had to prepare myself. Every day, I had to spend some time getting ready for that. I had to put myself in my meditative space. I had to quiet myself. Simplify. Devote myself truly to preparing for the next adventure.

Focusing On The Here And The Now

His first step towards preparing for death was to accept the facts. He did not expect miracles; neither did he waste any energy on mourning or getting invasive medical treatments. That could only, if at all, extend his living days in exchange for some of his strength. He made peace with his fate, and devoted himself into making those last days the best of his life.

It’s a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s what you get for saying hello to people. At some point, a good-bye is coming too. Not just to all the people you love and who love you back, but to the world as well.

He realized that during his entire life he had been focusing on the future. In fact, he almost entirely lived for it. However, when he knew that soon he would not be here anymore, he decided that the best he could do is to cherish every moment in the here and the now.

Perhaps some of the continuing obsession with the future and the past, or even most of it, was motivated by ego, a basic and lifelong impulse to find one’s slot, to be seen as a contributing member of society.

What would happen, if rather than dissipating the energy I was spending on the current activity by always having the next one in mind, I concentrated completely on what I was doing at the moment, without a care about what came next? How slow or fast would time elapse if I completely immersed myself in what I was doing?

He developed a state of consciousness that allowed him to appreciate every second. He realized that true commitment should be measured by the energy devoted rather than by the time invested, since only the latter is within your control.

(…) I had come to wonder about the true nature of commitment. In fact, it’s not about time. It’s not about reliability and predictability. Commitment is about depth. It’s about effort. It’s about passion. It’s about wanting to be in a certain place, and not somewhere else. Of course time is involved; it would be naïve and illogical to suggest otherwise. But commitment is best measured not by the time one is willing to give up but, more accurately, by the energy one wants to put in, by how present one is.

Before my illness, I had considered commitment king among virtues. After I was diagnosed, I came to consider consciousness king among virtues. I began to feel that everyone’s first responsibility was to be as conscious as possible all the time, especially later in life, especially toward the very end. For one thing, it could help others to understand the end better. That’s a responsibility we owe to each other, certainly to the generation to follow. Maybe we’ll discover that dying is something not quite so frightening. That would certainly be a nugget worth passing on. Maybe we’ll discover that death is even something worth embracing.

Dealing With Relationships That Matter

O’Kelly took his time to think about all the people that had touched him in a meaningful way. He centered on his family and close friends, but he also mapped out those who mattered to him during his career, his education, and other life experiences. He set out to give a closure to these relationships, not only by saying good-bye, but by acknowledge those people and telling them how important and unique they had been to him. These closure sessions enriched both parties and allowed him to gain peace and balance.

(…) the exercise forced me to do the very thing that wiser people every now and then advise us to do –that is, to stop and look up long enough to think about the people we love and why we love them, and to go and tell them explicitly how we feel, because who knows when that opportunity will disappear forever? (…)

 (…) we touch the lives of many more people than we realize, especially since we tend not to be methodical bookkeepers (!) about it, but just keep a vague, occasional tally in our heads. It was amazing –even shocking, perhaps even tragic- that as we lived our lives, we could gradually forget so many of the people who had brought us small but wonderful experiences and joys throughout.

(…) when I thought I had forever in front of me, I could have delineated for myself how important certain people were and how less important others were, and perhaps it would have guided me in how I allocated my time (or my energy).

Simplifying And Setting Priorities

O’Kelly questioned his earlier life priorities as well as those of his peers and friends. He describes how he managed to distil out the most meaningful elements of life through the process of simplification.  This helped him prioritize what really mattered and make the most of his last days.

Simplicity is in such a scarce supply, I thought, yet so many people would benefit by it, be transformed by it. Looking at how some of the people around me had managed their lives, I lamented that they had not been blessed as I had, with this jolt to life. They had no real motivation or clear timeline to stop what they were so busy at, to step back, to ask what exactly they were doing with their life (…) Why was it so scary to ask themselves one simple question: Why am I doing what I’m doing? Part of me understood the vortex, of course. Part of me understood that they couldn’t stop, particularly if they enjoyed success, because if they did stop, they would stop being relevant. I understood. Completely. But being relevant was not relevant.

Eugene O’Kelly died four months after being diagnosed with brain cancer. He left with us Chasing Daylight, a very inspirational read. It is a book about endings, but also about new beginnings, about enjoying the present and acknowledging the opportunities we have at hand to be happy. It is also a book about acceptance, about how to face reality and seek peace; it is about not being afraid to die, but instead being prepared for when the moment comes. 

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