Born January 8, 1942 in Oxford England, Stephen Hawking, world renowned physicist and author on the mysterious scientific wonder that is our universe, passed away on March 14 of this year. While his body of work alone, from his famed research with black holes and relativity, to his beloved A Brief History of Time, is deeply compelling for its brilliant and astute observations on the scientific workings of the natural world, Hawking’s tenacity as he negotiated the effects of a degenerative motor neurone disease for the majority of his life is equally inspirational. Diagnosed at age 21, Hawking was given two years to live. He survived to be 76 years old.
Prompted to comment on the contentious ethical debate of euthanasia, Hawking was quoted saying that, while he sympathized with a person’s right to end their life, he thought “it would be a great mistake. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” Such dogged determination to live a robust, productive life in the face of circumstances that severely curtailed his autonomy and presented countless logistical obstacles to his daily life, is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, and the necessity of living our lives fully. While it’s not a surprise, since the man was a wellspring of scientific, mathematical, and philosophic wisdom, recent science supports Hawking’s lived belief that “while there’s life, there is hope,” with a recent Yale University study finding that in a group of nearly 5,000 people whose average age was 72, “those who carried a gene variant linked to dementia–but also had positive attitudes about aging–were 50% less likely to develop the disorder than people who carried the gene but faced aging with more pessimism or fear [emphasis added].” Perhaps the secret to the extraordinary longevity of Hawking’s life amidst such a grim initial prognosis has something to do with exactly the concept this study suggests—namely, that positivity and resilience have the power to significantly alter the quality and duration of our existence.
As a recent article for TIME Magazine on the secrets to a longer and better life so aptly describes, “Humans are not alone in facing the ultimate reckoning, but we’re the only species–as far as we know–who spends its whole life knowing death is coming.” Hawking, like all of us, confronted the “ultimate reckoning,” with a physical challenge that foregrounded this inevitability much earlier in his life than is typical for most; yet, rather than face this reality with resignation, anxiety, bartering, or any other number of forms of denial, Hawking embraced living. It’s a paradox that in order to live a longer, better life, we need to throw our arms wide open to the inevitability that our lives will eventually, ultimately, cease to exist. As both the brilliant and inspirational life of Stephen Hawking demonstrates, there’s no telling what life will bring our way—personal hardships, loss, illness, or injury— from the all the possible vulnerabilities endemic to human existence that are shaped largely by forces beyond our control. What we do have control over, however, is our capacity for hope, and the extent to which we embrace living to fullest. As the author for TIME concludes most poignantly, “The end of life is a nonnegotiable thing. The quality and exact length of that life, however, is something we very much have the power to shape.”
Image source: New Scientist