The Other Side of Ego | Jonathan Gravenor | TEDxOcala

Translator: Peter van de Ven
Reviewer: Tanya Cushman I don’t care if you live or die, I really don’t. It’s a hell of a thing hearing it
from someone you barely know, (Laughter) but imagine hearing that
from someone you love. On February the 24th, 2012, I was diagnosed
with late stage throat cancer. That night, I went home and sat at a table
with my daughter and my wife, trying to swallow the fear while telling them
about the procedures ahead. That’s when my daughter pushed
her chair away from the table and said, “I don’t care if you live or die.” There was a lot of anger
and yelling through closed doors, and that night as I tried to sleep, it kept me awake, and I kept thinking: “Why can’t she see what I have given her,
what I have done for her?” I was a broadcast journalist – at one time I was
a TV news anchor with a big show. I became a network reporter. I became a foreign correspondent;
we traveled around the world. We went from the cold prairie provinces
to the warmth of Sydney, Australia, so I could cover Southeast Asia
and the South Pacific. I couldn’t understand
how she couldn’t see what I gave her, but as I lay there,
in the arrogance of my beliefs, I began to see the truth,
and the truth was … I couldn’t remember the last time
I had hugged her and made her feel safe, the last time I had told her
how proud I was of her, or the last time I had said “I love you.” And suddenly I realized that the cancer
was a lot deeper than my throat. A few weeks later I was in hospital to undergo what doctors call
a radical neck dissection: they took a scalpel and cut me
from the back of the right ear to below my Adam’s apple –
twelve inches long. They had to take out
a golf ball-size tumor. And as I lay in recovery, praying to a God that I did not
believe in, “Please be gone,” the surgeon came in
and told me that it wasn’t, and that I had to undergo a lot of weeks
of chemotherapy and radiation. So, in this time that I knew
I needed to be close to people because I was more scared than ever, I decided to go to chemotherapy
and radiation alone and deny my daughter and my wife
the chance to hear me say, “I am so scared, please come with me.” I was dying to be close but pushing
them away and dying anyways. (Sigh) I’d go to radiation each day, and I couldn’t come home just to face
the four walls closing in around me, so I started to go to downtown areas
so I could get lost in the sea of humanity and hope that that distraction
would take me away from the rampant thoughts
inside of my head that my demise was just around the corner. It’s said, “When you’re ready to learn,
the teacher will appear,” but I did not know that that teacher
would be a homeless bum. I remember the first day I saw him, scruffy, sitting on a piece of cardboard
on a busy intersection corner with his little dog sitting by him,
and a big sign that said “Help.” And when I first saw him, the first thing
I thought was “How dare you? You should be up with a job. How dare you? You’re not
more of a victim than me. Look at me, I’ve got cancer, I could die. I’ve been with little kids in chemo. They’re victims, not you.” Over the next few days, I observed him as I would walk
back and forth, trying to get lost, and I never saw him reach out
and actually overtly beg to anyone or be overly aggressive, he just seemed kind, offering hellos
and greetings to people. One day, walking down the road,
heading for home, I was on the same side of the road as him. Normally, I would cross to the other side
so I didn’t have to confront him, or, I guess, maybe confront my prejudice, but today I said, “No,
I’m going to go right by him.” And as I started to walk by him, that little dog stood up,
and stood in front of me and then sat down and looked at me
with a friendly face. (Laughter) I reached down and I patted it,
and then I turned to him. Without thinking, I opened up
and was friendly, and I said, “What’s his name?” He laughed at me and said, “Well,
he’s a she, and her name’s Molly.” (Laughter) “She doesn’t normally stop people
unless they need something. What do you need?” Yeah, I wish I was that kind
in my thoughts … (Laughs) The first thing I thought: “Nice scam.
Pull on the heart strings, make me feel.” (Laughter) Instead, I said to him, “She must’ve known
I needed a friendly dog to pet today,” and I walked away. And I was confused;
I was confused about a lot of stuff. The next day after radiation,
I knew I wanted to go back and either make amends
or do something or figure something out. I wanted to give him
something, but not money because we know what happens
when you give a beggar money: they’re going to spend it
on drugs or alcohol. I stopped and picked up
a sandwich and a coffee, some little biscuits for Molly, and as I got close, he waved and said,
“You’ve come back to see Molly, I see.” I was about to hand him
the food and stuff, but he stuck out his hand to shake mine. And as he did, he started
a conversation with me as if we had been mates for a long time. I sat with him and offered up
the sandwich, and he said, “I’m not going to have this
unless we share.” The Spanish poet Quevedo once wrote: “There are no sorrows
when we break bread.” And there weren’t any sorrows that day. We sat and talked like two old buddies,
and for a moment I forgot that I was sick. After a bit, he reached into his bag
and pulled out a little pill bottle, and his hands were shaking –
he couldn’t open it – so I offered to. He handed it to me, and I looked,
and there was his name, Douglas, and Largactil was the medication, which is used by people
with schizophrenia – which I thought meant
he must be a psychotic serial killer … (Laughter) What it is, it’s an internal jail, people get very little government help, we ignore them, we stigmatize them, and so I turned to him and said,
“Is this why you’re begging?” And he looked at me and he said: “What? No, I’m here raising money
to help the needy,” and he pointed at the sign. And there below the big “Help” –
I hadn’t even looked – were the groups
that he was raising money for. And suddenly, I realized it was
not him that was disabled, it was me. For the judgment that I have had with him blinded me to the truth
of this man’s gracious intent. I saw him often after that. I remember one day, he had this cheeky smile
on his face and waved me over. He reached into his bag
for a little box of chocolates, that I’d ignore as some cheap treat, but I knew from him
that this was a lot of monies. So I reached around the box,
shook his hand and said, “Thank you, my friend.” And he started to tear up,
and I said, “Doug, what’s wrong?” and he said, “I don’t really have friends, and I sure don’t have
important friends like you.” I’d lived my life trying to be important, with TV cameras, recognition. And I never felt more important in my life
than I did right at that second. Because I was important just simply
because I was giving him my presence. I said to him that I wouldn’t take the chocolates
unless we shared, like we always do. So we sat, and he opened them with great joy. And as we sat, I looked
at that sea of people move by us. People with places to go
and people to see and things to do, and people that I used
to think I was like, people that were looking down upon us
like we were less than them. I wanted to be those people for so long,
to have that view from above, but now, sitting down below, eating the best chocolates
I’d ever had in my life, I realized the best view is right here. Sydney, Australia, does get
a little cool in the winter. It was a winter day as I was walking
through town, had a jacket on. As I came upon Doug, he put
a milk crate upside down, and I sat on it. Molly came up and put
her paws on my knees, so I picked her up and pulled her into me
and opened my jacket, and for the first time exposed
this long scar which was on my neck. And Doug said, “What’s that?” I started to explain about the cancer. He said, “I know you’ll be okay,” and I said, “I kind of feel I am,
I’m getting radiation and treatment.” And he grabbed my arm,
and I turned to him, and he said, “No, you’re going to be okay. You have a lot more to do.” I have never in my life
been stumped for words, but I was that day. So I did what we men do when we are emotional
and scared we’ll cry in public, I sniffled, turned my head,
and tried to swallow the tears. He was kind; he did the same. And we sat there,
sniffling back and forth. (Laughter) I think sometimes … the best things are said
when we don’t exchange words, we just exchange space. I had to get up and leave. I didn’t want to say goodbye,
so I said, “I’ll see you later,” and he just waved and smiled. Molly got up and barked
for the first time. I walked down that street that day,
and my eyes were pouring out tears – not because I was fearful or angry,
it was because I was happy. Because for the first time in my life –
or the first time since cancer – I knew I was going to live. And for the first time in my life,
I felt I had a real purpose. The next day, I had chemotherapy, and, well, chemotherapy has a way
of wiping all positivity out of you. You’re slowly fed vile poison
that drips into your body. To make things worse, there was a little girl sitting
across from me with a nurse by her. She was combing the hair
on the mane of a toy horse. She had a scarf on to cover her bald head, her skin was green –
she had a look of defeat. God, I didn’t want to look at her. Didn’t want to look away either. Then suddenly – madness as I closed my eyes – and I remembered when
I was just a young boy that age, and my best friend, Rob Austin,
the class clown, made faces, so I turned to her and I went … (Laughter) That’s more of a reaction
than I got from her. (Laughter) You know what little kids can look like
if they think you’re really strange? Well, that’s the look she gave me. (Laughter) The logical thing would’ve been to turn
away and pretend it didn’t happen, but … that would take somebody smart, and nowhere in this talk
have I said I’m smart. So I did it again. This time I saw her stomach start to roll;
it came up to her chest. I was wondering was she
going to be ill and vomit, but … (Laughter) she started to laugh. And the laughter
of a young child is contagious, and I broke out in laughter. Nurses started to come in
from all the other rooms, and they started to laugh. And I knew I had to see Doug and tell him: “You’re right,
I do have a lot more to do.” The next day, I went back downtown, and there he was: gone. He wasn’t there. I didn’t think much,
I was hoping just an anomaly. So I went back day after day, I went back for weeks, and he wasn’t there. I asked storekeepers had they seen him, and most would say,
“Bums just move to better spots.” I’d phone agencies. They’d say they couldn’t say anything
because of privacy laws. At night, the time I had reserved
to think in my own head the fears about my own demise, I started thinking about him
and wondering: Had he been mugged?
Had he been hospitalized? Had he been institutionalized? I started thinking about Molly. Had she been put in a shelter? And was she about to be put down? I wanted to tell you about Doug and give you all sorts of great metaphors
on what it really meant to me and how it’s going to be part
of a big transition in my life, and I wanted to tell you
how great he had made me, and then I realized, that day I hadn’t been prepared
to tell Doug the whole story. You see, in chemo that day, we had to turn our chairs
away from each other because every time we looked
at each other, we were laughing. The chemo goes on, and you don’t laugh; it kills you. And chemo made me emotional,
and I got teared up and I felt lousy, but I knew that I
couldn’t leave that day – I knew I was leaving before her – before I said something to her that was going to be so important
that it would rescue her. So, as I finished the chemo, I walked over and I
squatted down in front of her, and I got her eye to eye,
and I must’ve looked like hell, and I was shaking, and I could feel
sweat coming out of my head, and I was trying to come up
with great words, and as I did, she looked at me
and she tilted her head – with an empathetic look that you would recognize
from a parent, not a little child – and then she reached out with her free arm and placed her hand
against my cheek to comfort me. I was the child, suddenly,
and I started to cry, and so she wiped
the tears away from my face. It was the hardest thing,
walking out of there that day. As I looked back, she was just there
combing the pony again. Couple of weeks later, I was in chemo,
I saw her nurse, so I mouth: “Have you seen her? How is she?” The nurse came and told me
that she had passed away. God took the wrong one that day. That and Doug sat in my heart a long time. I started to realize
that I wasn’t so scared of dying, I had just been scared,
my whole life, of living. I started to realize … that we can all die in just one minute. But we can all live
a million amazing moments, filled with passion, filled with pain,
filled with love, angst, anger, anything we want, and that I had lived half a century avoiding any negative emotion
and trying to insulate myself against the poor,
the needy, the desperate. I tried to surround myself
with rich, famous, powerful people, thinking if I got to be with them, I can live in this
sort of benign happiness, and if I felt any guilt
about the homeless, that I could wait
until I made more than I needed to give them some of what I had. But here, in my most desperate moment, two people I had spent
a lifetime avoiding – a homeless man and a little kid – who I thought had so little to give,
gave me so much. I had a lot more to do, but that lot more to do
wasn’t me saving other people, that lot more to do
was me seeing other people, me receiving, and in that giving them
the power to heal others. It also started me on a course
of redemption in my life with my daughter. When I was asked to do this talk,
I was honored and humbled, and I was scared that I wasn’t worthy. Normally, in the past, I’d have told
a million people, posted about it, but I didn’t tell anyone for weeks,
except I called my wife, Marina; she cried on the phone with me. And then I called my little girl. She now lives halfway
across the country, down under. She’s going to school. She’s – She’s going to be an
early-childhood education teacher, and dammit, she’s going to be the best
because she’s really good; she’s got a heart so big. And I told her – same little girl that told me
she didn’t care if I lived or died – and she said to me, “Daddy, I am so proud of you. You’re going to do
really good, and Daddy … I love you.” Thank you. (Applause)


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