Living in bonus time

Illustration by Lisa A. Ryan

Most people tend to view the future as having a long trajectory, but a cancer diagnosis causes time horizons to shrink. Researchers label this recalibration an existential slap. Abruptly shifting from expansive time to abbreviated time can be jolting. For someone like me, who used to plan vacations two years in advance, the adjustment
has been profound. Such loss of control is often difficult to absorb.

The ancient Greek language employed two words to define time. The first, chronos, describes clock or calendar time — measured linearly in seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years. The second, kairos, points to life’s grand moments when we say, “My whole life changed when …” While the former is scientifically objective and relates to quantity of time, the latter is subjectively rich with meaning and refers to quality of time.

As cancer survivors living in bonus time, we have a rich opportunity to increase our sense of kairos. Rather than living mechanically day-today, the gate is open for us to gain a heart of wisdom and joy. An old French saying nicely captures the idea: “God works in moments” (en peu d’heure Dieu labeure). A terminally ill British patient recently echoed this sentiment: “I realized I preferred a short life lived well than a long life lived badly.” In other words, if forced to choose, she opted for kairos over chronos.

After being hit by the existential slap of cancer, many of us regret the amount of chronos we wasted prior to diagnosis. But we can’t go back. We are different people
now. The good news is that we have been given future chronos. This presents us with the opportunity to redeem time in at least four ways.

As cancer survivors living in bonus time, we have a rich opportunity to increase our sense of kairos.

First, we learn to savor each moment. Second, we focus more on relationships and less on achievements. Third, we clean up our messes and find greater freedom. Finally, having received so much help from others, we slingshot this goodwill ahead to benefit others.

My pre-cancer life was pell-mell. So much in a hurry to charge the next hill, I sadly missed thousands (millions?) of special moments. And now? When I’m taken aback by the autumn glow of a tree, I pause to capture the moment in a photo so I can enjoy it anew later. When a puppy walks by, I bend down to ruffle its fur. When a nephew or niece calls, I don’t watch the clock. When Mary asks to spend an extra night camping, I try to accommodate. When two driving routes are options, I often take the slower and more scenic one.

Cherishing the here and now is a grace from God. Being too focused on the future blinds us to what is priceless in this moment. Cancer teaches us that strolling is sometimes better than sprinting. Flexibility becomes a virtue.

Excerpted from Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose. Alec Hill, a two-time cancer survivor, is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and previously was dean of the School of Business and Economics at SPU. He holds a law degree from the University of Washington. Hill lives in the Seattle area with his wife, Mary.

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