By Gideon Schneider
November 13, 2008
The timing of the US election couldn't have been more perfect. As all those reheated Amy Winehouse exposes dried up, my thirst for drama needed quenching. Headlines such as ‘Dizzy Broad Runs For Camden Pub' were replaced by the more compelling ‘Dizzy Broad Runs For White House'. For me, Sarah Palin's achievements as well as those of her victorious nemesis, confirmed the mantra that in America you can achieve anything. The trouble is, when anything is achievable, how do you know when you've achieved enough? My cancer helped me find an answer.
Growing up in NW London, life's key objective was keeping up with the Jones-ovitzes. Other people's expectations of me reflected this. At twelve it was casually assumed by all that I should give up an hour of every evening, for one whole year, to learning the entire Torah portion for my barmitzvah. Decent grades were anticipated for GCSEs and A-levels; and as for university attendance, in the suburbs that wasn't expected - that was a given.
Now the expectations feel weightier than ever. There's a list of boxes to tick: marriage, kids, career, car, counselling. For now though, that to-do list remains mostly unticked and my suspicion is, it doesn't even end there. If I do ever have children I'm sure I'll be expected to expect things from them too.
I don't lack inspiring yardsticks against which to measure my progress. The ‘Magic Circle' of law firms collectively employs several of my old school friends. Other ambitious contemporaries run the editing suites of various high profile production companies, outshine their fellow students at medical school or run their own successful start-ups. Perhaps an onlooker would view my academic and working life as impressive in its own right. I've gone from student to soldier to salesman to PR exec, even moonlighting as a voice over artist (witness the electronic children's tour at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.) However, it's difficult to enjoy the eclectic variety of my roles when others seem to have been so certain in their choices. Vague ideas of what I want out of life have caused me to ricochet between jobs like a misfired bowling ball shooting from one alley wall to the other on its way to the pins - or worse, the gutter. I'm driven by an urgent desire to find purpose in my life, finding a niche that only I can fill. This means I've never been willing to settle in a job that didn't fully make use of my abilities, always spurred on to new things when insufficiently fulfilled. In a good mood, I relish the broad spectrum of experiences this has afforded me. When downcast, I mull enviously over the steady career progressions and material benefits secured by others from the class of 2000. Sometimes I wish I'd followed the arrows painted on the career alley floor.
Some seven months ago friends noticed a lump on my neck. I had just begun working in media sales. Had I been on course to making partner at Allan and Ovary, I would have balked at the interruption presented by my subsequent diagnosis. As it turned out, the physical limitations suddenly imposed upon me came as a refreshing break from the limitless ‘potential' I'd been branded with on every school report-card I can remember. For the first time I had an answer to the ever-nagging voice in my head, ‘are you sure you couldn't do more?' Because now my body was screaming back ‘no!'
If I tried to fit too much in to my day now, exhaustion would force me to stop. If I tried to make too many plans, they'd be rendered obsolete by unpredictable vomiting in the days after each chemotherapy session. The message was clear - right now there were things I just couldn't do. Rather than surrender, I took it as my cue to focus on all the things I could do. With the hours between nine to five freed up, I took to rediscovering London's parks and exhibitions. I frequented the cinema, made headway on the list of books I want to read and channeled my creativity in to my JC blogs.
In short, I found myself happier than I had been while healthy. I could hold myself aloof from the competitiveness of the career circus because being ill, no one could have any expectations of me. I wasn't comparing my accomplishments to anyone else's because having physical restrictions meant my starting point was different. And as to the question of knowing when I'd achieved enough, it was obsolete; ‘enough' was simply when I could do no more.
Gideon Schneider, who is writing about living with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the JC and on our website, is raising money for Chai Cancer Care. See www.justgiving.com/gideonschneider
Gideon's article will feature in the newspaper next week.