At the age of eighteen, while laying in a hospital bed, a doctor I had never seen before entered my room followed by an unlikely number of interns and nurses, none of whom could make eye contact with me. The doctor proceeded to pull the curtain closed around my bed, as if the sterile green linen would somehow stop the news he was about to tell me from being heard by the other patients in the room just six feet away.
“Kirk,” he said, checking my chart to make sure he was getting my name right, “I have some bad news. The mass we removed from your thigh was a very large synovial sarcoma.”
“What does that mean? I don’t know what that means.” I said, now urgently looking at the eyes of the entourage for some hint at what was being told me. That they continued to be unable to look back into my eyes I now know was telling me everything I was about to hear out loud.
“Well, it’s a rare and aggressive kind of cancer.” At this point he looked around at his entourage, as if to signify to them that now was when he would give “the speech”.
“You know, Kirk, most of the guys I treat here are jocks who I get to fix up and send back home better than new. I can’t do that with you. This type of cancer is pretty relentless.”
“So what does that mean exactly? Do I have to have that “chemotherapy” or radiation or something?” To this day, what I asked exactly in that moment remains fuzzy to me. But all I knew is that he had said “cancer”, he had most definitely said “cancer”.
“No, I’m afraid chemotherapy and radiation aren’t very effective for your kind of cancer. Kirk, people with this type of cancer…well, like I said, it’s pretty relentless. Particularly given the size of your tumor, it will have most likely spread. People with this type of tumor can usually expect to survive another eighteen to thirty-six months.”
This was to become the “before and after” moment of my life.
What proceeded from that point was a many-year odyssey of radical treatment, surgeries, and in the midst of all it, a profound awakening to the miracle of my life. Cancer was both one of the greatest struggles of my life while also being its greatest blessing. Mortality’s reality shaking me awake from sleep at the age of eighteen as opposed to at eighty-five just moments before death is a blessing that has driven my life. My tumor did spread to my lungs, and at the seemingly darkest time I remember saying to my parents in an attempt to ease their pain: “I’d rather have had these couple of years awake then to have spent the next sixty asleep.”
And I meant that. I had begun to live lucidly. Not from the awareness that my cancer was terminal, but that life is. People with terminal cancer aren’t different because they have a terminal condition — we all have a terminal condition — they are different because they have simply become aware of it. Whether it was cancer in two years, a heart attack in thirty, or a stroke in sixty — this had become inconsequential to me — in a blink, or two blinks, or three blinks, my life would someday, relatively soon, come to an end.
The real truth is that we are all in the process of dying.
Seeing that so clearly freed me. It freed me from the worry and fear around the little things that I had deluded myself into believing were giant things. I began to experience my soul — this deeper, more real part me — not as a concept, but as a living reality. Given the finiteness of my time here, life had become about following that part of me, as opposed to my fears and thoughts.
I remember being in a car heading home from MSKCC in New York City with my father driving. We had just gotten the news about the tumor metastasizing to my left lung — what felt like the final validation of my initial prognosis. We stopped at a red light on York Ave. In somewhat of a daze, I was brought back to reality by a horn blasting and not ceasing. I looked at the car next to me. A man was leaning on his horn, veins in neck bulging, looking at the red light and screaming at it as if it was killing his children because it was not turning green fast enough. I remember thinking: “Wow. That is just not a real problem. I will never be that guy.”
That turned out to be a lie I had chosen to tell myself.
Monthly scans became quarterly scans, became yearly scans, became biannual scans. I reached the five-year mark. I reached the ten-year mark. I reached the mark where your surgeon tells you there is a greater chance of getting a new cancer from the radiation you’ve had than your original cancer returning. Without doctors being able to point to any particular thing, and with the small prices of most of my thigh and half of my lung gone, somehow I had made it through metastatic synovial sarcoma.
In the meantime I had become the president of a large ad agency in San Francisco. I had seemingly “made it” on all fronts. But that was an illusion. One day, driving on the Embarcadero, I witnessed another man leaning on a horn and screaming at a red light not turning green fast enough. And in one of the most dismaying moments of my life, I saw that the man was me. I had become disconnected from my greatest blessing. I had been given the single greatest gift in life — the awareness to live life lucidly, and not only that, had also been given not just two years to live in that, but twenty and counting, and yet I had betrayed that gift by falling asleep again — by becoming unconscious again and treating life like it was a commonplace thing and could be wasted by yelling at lights not turning color quickly enough.
Seeing that I had become that man I had sworn I could never become, acted like spiritual sniffing salts and I abruptly stopped that life. I vowed to be awake and learn the tools I needed to stay awake. I found myself in a graduate school called the University of Santa Monica, working toward a Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology. I found myself learning how to distinguish between the voice of my ego and the voice of my soul. I found myself one-by-one dismantling all the judgments my ego had placed between me and the reality of what I really am. I found myself opening to my life being a process of co-creation toward my soul’s purpose as opposed to a solo-creation toward my ego’s preference. I found myself letting go of the limiting beliefs that told me what I did as my vocation had to be different than what I did as service in the world.
Twelve years later, I am still using those tools in my vow to honor the gift of my life by doing my best to stay awake. I say “doing my best” because what the tools taught me is that it’s natural to drift off to sleep at times and that those moments are some of our best teachers in staying awake. Today I am no longer the president of a three-hundred-person advertising agency. Today I am the co-founder of a forty-person heart-led company that creates shared missions that business, philanthropy, government, artists, technology, and everyday people can join together to create scaled positive impact in the world. I also get to coach amazing leaders on how to move into a place of wakefulness and follow their soul’s purpose in creating mission-oriented lives and endeavors. Most importantly, I get to tell my two sons and my soul-mate how much I love them at least a couple times a day.
Whatever blessings I have in my life spring from a moment when as an eighteen-year-old a doctor walked in my hospital room and woke me up by telling me I had a terminal condition.
He was right. I do have a terminal condition. It’s called my life. While inevitably terminal, in every single moment it has the potential to be exquisitely beautiful, profoundly heart-opening, inconceivably creative, and infinitely loving.
The blessing of being awake to having a terminal condition is that it forces the two questions that can unlock a life of all those things:
What will I do with the time I have left?
Am I willing to start right now?
Kirk Souder is the co-founder of enso, a transformative coach, and a co-designer and co-facilitator of Soul Purpose 2017, a workshop designed to connect leaders with their next act in purpose, meaning, and impact. Information and dates for the upcoming Soul Purpose 2017 workshop available here.