Defying Time: What does it mean to defy time? A brief look at Dr. Stephen Hawking.

Defying Time: “Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking to turn 70 Sunday despite being diagnosed with a crippling muscular disease when he was 21.” (January 6, 2012)

I saw the above headlines this weekend and along with many people who have known of the work of Dr. Hawking, I was stuck by the enormity of the accomplishments of the man in the face of what should have been the biggest barrier in the world to ever achieving anything. Dr. Hawking has Lou Gehrig’s disease and is a quadriplegic who lives in a wheelchair and cannot move his arms or legs or even speak. I thought of the comment by Ben Franklin that we should all either do something worth being written about or write about something worth being done. Dr. Hawking and his life surely merits worth being written about. However, it is somewhat coincidental that I was thinking about two other “elderly” people who also merit attention. With this headline in mind, Defying Time, I have decided to write a series this week about people who have defied time. I will start with Dr. Hawking and each day this week I will post a brief blog about another person who has defied time and reflect on the message that they and their accomplishments have for us. First: A brief list of Dr. Hawking’s accomplishments:

Awards and honors:
• 1975 Eddington Medal
• 1976 Hughes Medal of the Royal Society
• 1979 Albert Einstein Medal
• 1981 Franklin Medal
• 1982 Order of the British Empire (Commander)
• 1985 Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
• 1986 Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
• 1988 Wolf Prize in Physics
• 1989 Prince of Asturias Awards in Concord
• 1989 Companion of Honour
• 1999 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society
• 2003 Michelson Morley Award of Case Western Reserve University
• 2006 Copley Medal of the Royal Society[50]
• 2008 Fonseca Prize of the University of Santiago de Compostela
• 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States

This list does not mention that he has published a book called “A Brief History of Time” that has sold over ten million copies or that he has dozens of papers and films that he has either authored or contributed to or that he has fathered 3 children and been married twice or that in 2007 he completed a zero gravity flight at Cape Canaveral. He has even acted in several TV shows in which he has played himself. My short list of his accomplishments barely brushes the surface of what Hawking has accomplished in his 70 years on this planet. Most people with Lou Gehrig’s disease die within a few years of their diagnosis. Stephen has survived and with little doubt prospered despite the crippling disease. He is honored, respected and admired the world over.

If ever anyone had an excuse for giving up on life or even hating life, a person diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease surely qualifies. I have had some personal encounters with the condition as my wife took care of a patient (Carol) for several years who had this disease. My wife Karen is a nurse and she would do a shift several times a week with a family in St. Paul who had contracted with her for nursing care for their invalid daughter. I would occasionally go over with Karen and spend some time visiting her and Carol during the evening after work. Carol was also a fighter and she demanded as much independence as she could get given the confines of the disease. Think about not being able to move or walk or talk and about the dependency that you would have on everyone for any of your needs from breathing to eating. Carol was on a respirator and could not even breathe by herself.

For many of us our independence is the most important factor in our lives. From the time we are infants to the time we die, we all want to live a life of independence and self-determination. Imagine the struggle to continue to live, if you had to forego any such notions of independence. It is difficult to imagine even surviving much less accomplishing anything under such conditions. In fact, many of us would probably say we would rather be dead than to live with these disabilities. Facing such incredible barriers to living, anyone wanting to be dead could surely be forgiven.

What can one say for a life like Stephen Hawking has lived? Is it grace, self-determination or simply a miracle that he has overcome his disabilities to give back to humanity much more than he has been given himself? How many of us go through life with our petty excuses for not accomplishing anything or even trying anything? I don’t have the time! I don’t have enough money! I don’t have the patience! I am too old to start anything now! If only I were younger!
Dylan Thomas has a poem which I like and occasionally use as an inspiration for myself, it goes like this:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

So take a minute today to think about Stephen Hawking. Take a minute to think about what you may have given up on or what you may have used as an excuse for not starting something. Do we really owe humanity anything? Does it matter? What do you owe yourself? What barriers do you need to rage against? Do not go gently into that good night.

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