Chasing Daylight by Eugene O’Kelly – Book Review
Chasing Daylight is the honest, touching and inspirational memoir of former KPMG CEO Eugene O’Kelly. The memoir was completed in three and a half months between his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer and his death in September 2005. It was published in 2006. It’s haunting yet extraordinarily hopeful voice reminds us to embrace the fragile, fleeting moments of our lives within the brief time we have with our family, our friends, and even ourselves.
This blog post has three sections. The first section is the actual review of the book. The second section describes my idea and vision of keeping key messages of this book alive and to implement them in our lives by forming a virtual “Perfect Moments” community. The third section links the relevance of key messages of this book to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
The book begins with two very powerful and shocking statements. “I was blessed. I was told I had three months to live”. This was in May 2005 and was in response to the devastating diagnosis that he had an aggressive form of primary brain tumor. His reasoned that he was able to approach the end of his life while still mentally lucid, somewhat physically fit and with his loved ones near to him. His sensibilities about work, accomplishments, consistency and continuity coupled by his drive to “win” at everything drove him to be as methodical as possible during his last few months after his diagnosis. He hoped to make this period the best three months of his life and a positive experience for those around him.
Eugene and his wife Corinne loved to play golf late in the day when the course tended to be emptier. He described how the sun being lower in the sky cast long shadows of the trees on the course. They felt that they were not just playing golf but chasing daylight as they were trying to grab as much time as they could before night set in. This was the inspiration for the title of the book.
He talked about the devastating effects that the diagnosis of Grade IV astrocytoma would have on him. Astrocytomas are tumors that arise from astrocytes—star-shaped cells that make up the “glue-like” or supportive tissue of the brain. He suffered seizures, major vision loss, had difficulty performing basic physical movements and eventually facial paralysis as the brain tumor grew into aggressive cancer.
One of the many profound moments in the book comes about through a conversation that Eugene had with Cardinal Egan, head of the New York Archdiocese. Eugene told Cardinal Egan “I feel a responsibility to die with as much consciousness as I possibly can” to which the Cardinal replied “To those whom much is given, much is expected. Raise yourself to the highest degree of consciousness”.
While going through such painful physical and mental hardships, sitting at a dining room table, Eugene made a to-do list for his final days. It included four major ones:
Live in the moment
Create (but also be open to) great moments, “perfect moments”
He wanted to unwind and close-out relationships with family members, friends, business associates because it would bring him and these people more pleasure than unhappiness; while he could still do it.
Perfect Moments to Eugene meant surprise little gifts of a moment or an hour or an afternoon where time came close to standing still. This was his way of getting to consciousness by being grounded in the present moment. When unwinding his relationships, he tried to incorporate elements of Perfect Moments as well. These became opportunities to create something special in the moment, something that had not existed before.
He candidly told stories of many unwindings and many Perfect Moments he was experiencing even while his faculties were declining steadily. He also mentioned the difficulties he encountered while trying to stay in the present moment because of his inability to focus and also because of his life-long habits of planning and thinking about the future.
The last chapter of the book was written by his wife Corrine, his “Sherpa”. She told the profoundly moving story of his last few days on Earth. Despite his steadily declining faculties, he was in good spirits and mentioned to her that he had lived a good life. He thanked her for her insights into death and dying that helped him transcend his fear. He said that he was in a good place and felt supported on the other side. He passed away peacefully on September 10, 2005.
This book is an amazing confirmation of what it means to be human. We all live our lives trying to pursue happiness in various forms, i.e. success, wealth, adventures, etc. However, we tend to get lost in them and never realize that one day all the objects that brought us happiness will be taken away from us. We never live our lives fully acknowledging that one day we will cease to exist. As a result, we get wound up in the messiness of our lives and our relationships. When the day of reckoning finally arrives, we are unable to unwind out of them and therefore find ourselves restless, fearful and unable to be at peace.
I teared up a few times while reading this book. It made me reflect on our joint experience of shared humanity. I was inspired to keep the key messages of this book alive and to implement them in our lives by forming a virtual “Perfect Moments” community.
“Perfect Moments” community
“Perfect Moments” concept as described by Eugene has the same elements of “peak experiences” concept as developed by Abraham Maslow, one of the earliest American psychologists to focus attention on happiness and happy individuals. According to Maslow, peak experiences are “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” They can range from simple activities to intense events; however, it is not necessarily about what the activity is, but the ecstatic, blissful feeling that is being experienced during these moments. A unique aspect of “peak experiences” and “Perfect Moments” is that it possible to cultivate them deliberately and consciously. Eugene marveled at the many Perfect Moments he was experiencing. He was getting better at it. In fact, he was entertaining the possibility of experiencing Perfect Days, string of Perfect Moments lasting a whole day.
The four major items in Eugene’s list (i.e. Unwind relationships, Simplify, Live in the moment and Create perfect moments) actually inform and impress one another. For example, unwinding a difficult relationship may lead us to some degree of ease, freedom and simplicity as we might become free of its residual negative emotions like anger, hurt, resentment, etc. that may be plaguing us. This new sense of freedom may allow us to live and be in the present moment thereby increasing the chances of us experiencing Perfect Moments.
The subtitle of Chasing Daylight is “How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life”. We can use this opportunity to transform our lives in the face of our own forthcoming deaths.
I envision the community to comprise of like-minded individuals who will:
- Read Chasing Daylight
- Agree on the importance and urgency of transforming our lives while we still can
- Explore and reflect on the merits of unwinding relationships, simplifying lives, learning to live in the moment and creating Perfect Moments
- Share with the community our unique experiences to whatever extent we feel comfortable, so as to inspire similar actions/experiences in others
- Learn lessons from the community to implement in our own lives
- Interact with community members in a polite and non-judgmental manner
To begin this community, I will leverage a section of Summit Mindfulness website to save all its learnings and experiences. If the community grows and we collectively feel the need to store and present vast amount of information differently, then can create another repository. It is not necessary for participants in the Perfect Moments community to have prior exposure nor experience in the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Relevance to mindfulness meditation
In this section, I want to explain how the key messages of Chasing Daylight are relevant to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Three main insights accrue from the practice of mindfulness meditation. They are also known as the three characteristics of existence of conditioned phenomena.
The first insight is Impermanence. Everything is in a state of change or flux, all living beings change over time, all circumstances change, nothing is permanent. However, our minds try to project a sense of permanence in all its activities. When we get caught up in trying to achieve permanent results, we inevitably suffer. Mindfulness meditation brings us face to face with this insight whenever we turn our attention inwards by focusing on our breath, bodily sensations, feeling tones, thoughts or mind states.
The second insight is on the inherently unsatisfactory nature of all experiences. It means dissatisfaction, disease, stress and/or suffering. Nothing in the physical world can bring permanent satisfaction. Some of it is due to the fact that everything changes.
The third insight is on the “not self” aspect of all experience. We take the outermost or shallow sense of self as our true self. We see ourselves as separate and do not identify ourselves with the whole, or a part of the universe or other people.
One of the many benefits of mindfulness meditation is that shifts our perspective and allows us to identify with the witnessing aspect of consciousness rather than identify with whatever is happening in our bodies and mind. Eugene’s narrative in Chasing Daylight is a beautiful affirmation of what it means to live with this perspective. It opens us up to moments and experiences that are sublime and not dependent on outward conditions.
If you are interested in participating in this community, then please message me:
Al (AT) SummitMindfulness (DOT) com
The fear of death follows from the fear of life.
A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
Normally we do not like to think about death.
We would rather think about life.
Why reflect on death?
When you start preparing for death you soon realize
that you must look into your life now… and come to face the truth of your self.
Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected.
As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.
–Leonardo da Vinci
“The meaning of life is that it ends”