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A Sweet Comeuppance

March 18th, 2011 by dk

Laura Musikanski and John DeGraaf got a sweet comeuppance two weeks ago in Eugene. I don’t use the term derisively. It was really sweet, and it was a comeuppance.

Laura and John had been invited to the University of Oregon’s 29th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. This attorney and filmmaker, along with others in Seattle, have examined happiness, building on Bhutan’s work as the only nation which measures its Gross National Happiness. You can take their happiness survey at

Promised was a discussion of happiness. Delivered was a demonstration of valor.

Laura sampled one of the survey questions, asking about our expectations for longevity. “How many of you expect to live to be 60?” Some hands went up. A murmur followed, then a small reply from David in the back. He asked for a smaller number. Laura obliged. “OK, 50?” David countered “45,” and then identified himself with fourth-stage lung cancer.


Laura absorbed this soft rebuke. The question assumed that quality of life and quantity are interchangeable. We all took a deep breath. She yielded the floor to David, inviting him to speak whatever he wanted us to hear. It took courage for the session’s “leaders” to relinquish their power so deftly, so sweetly.

David spoke about what focus his life has gained since learning of his terminal illness. He described a mixture of bemusement and sympathy that news of his condition usually evokes. Many are almost disappointed to learn that he never smoked, and that 20,000 nonsmokers die of lung cancer every year.

We all listened, able to see for a moment that we share David’s fate, only not his awareness. He measures his remaining days in spoonfuls, based on medical prognostications. Our condition is no less certain, only measured with less precision.

In light of this abrupt reminder of mortality, I reflected on valor in the face of this vale of tears. Consider its three faces — and how they shape three phases of life.

Fearlessness: Children don’t know fear. They learn it. They suffer the bumps and bruises that teach it. “Big boys don’t cry” is what parents say to prevent their children from getting acquainted with their fears. Only when we know our fears can we move on to bravery.

Bravery: Adolescence and early adulthood is shaped by battles. We fight for our education, our driver’s license, our career and advancement, our first mortgage. External forces array in skepticism, if not outright resistance. The world crosses its arms and tells us, “Prove you’re worthy.” David’s life has obstacles no different than ours, except his road beyond overcoming them appears shorter.

Courage: Literally “whole-heartedness,” it reflects a battleground that has moved inward. Most Americans by middle age have amassed what’s needed for survival. The world isn’t in our way so much anymore. We often get in our own way, refusing to choose a clear path for ourselves. Clarity of purpose demands that we let go of things that no longer matter to us. Now that people are willing to listen to us, it’s up to us to have something worthwhile to say.

“Affluenza” (a cultural contagion of consumerism — one of John DeGraaf’s specialties) takes root when we fail to recognize our imperative shifting from outer bravery to inner courage. Our muscle memory works against us. We’ve been waging external battles for decades, displaying our bravery, but the world eventually stops pushing back so hard. We have proven our worthiness! But we don’t stop. We continue to “do battle,” against increasingly silly things. I call them faux foes. Is our TV as large as our neighbor’s? Does our phone have the latest wizardry? On and on….

Back to that Friday afternoon. David was a picture of bravery, battling an adversary that few have slain. He also exhibited fearlessness, choosing against silence when his life paradigm didn’t fit the one Laura proposed. Laura responded with courage — whole-heartedness — as she allowed the hierarchy and order to be rearranged. She opened herself to an uncertain outcome better aligned with her internal directive — her heart.

Changing the world will require as much courage as bravery. I saw both that day.

Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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