The Legacy of a Life in Four Words: In Honor of Valerie Harper

Learn from the legacy of an amazing woman.

BY: Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., Fierce with Age

I lost two weeks the summer of 1969 while backpacking in Europe. I had just finished reading Love Story and certain that like the protagonist I, too, was dying of leukemia, missed Rome entirely while I fixated on every ache and pain. Turns out that I was fine, but I’ll never get those two weeks back.

A month ago, while waiting for the results of some serious medical tests, I would have lost more precious time out of my life worrying, but for words of wisdom from a most unlikely source: the front cover of "People Magazine". It was a cover photo of Valerie Harper who caught my eye. Recognizing her as my old friend Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore show, she looked wonderfully vibrant and full of life.

From most perspectives, I would have seemed to have missed the mark by a mile. For upon closer inspection, I saw that the headline beneath her photo read: “Valerie Harper’s Brave Goodbye.” Harper, it turns out, is facing terminal cancer and had but months to live. But as I opened the magazine and began to read, I realized that despite her grim prognosis, I hadn’t been wrong about her at all. In many ways, I encountered what may well be one of the most vibrant and fully alive woman to ever grace the cover of that magazine. In fact, in a quote from Valerie, appropriately set in bold, I had the privilege of reading the four most important words I had ever and I venture to propose will ever encounter: “Don’t Miss Your Life.”

For me, it was bad enough that I missed two weeks of Rome. But in the face of my medical exams, spotlighting my life in the bright beam of mortality, I wondered how much else of my life I’d missed out on over the years. How many hours, weeks, months had I allowed fear to call the shots in my life, herding me to make safe choices rather than go for what I really wanted? How often did I just catch glimpses of my real life as I sped through on the fast-track, fueled by anxiety or responding to external pressures? Psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom, in his insightful classic Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death, has the answer. Most of not only my life, but most of our lives, are lived in both conscious and unconscious reactivity to fear of dying.

When we’re not dwelling morosely on death, allowing our fears to take us under, we’re seeking to squash our feelings by throwing ourselves into relationships, to money, even to success and good works, to deny death’s terror. “But in spite of the staunchest of our defenses, death anxiety is never completely subdued: it is always there, lurking in the hidden ravines of our minds.”

There is an antidote, happily. Interestingly enough, Yalom arrived at the solution through years of psychoanalytic study. Harper arrived at pretty much the same destination in the days following her diagnosis. As Harper puts it: “Cancer makes real what we try to obscure for ourselves. We spend our lifetimes thinking, ‘I’m never going to die.’ But cancer says, ‘Hey, not so fast.’” Harper adds: “Confronting the truth will always set you free..at least it has for me.” Yalom says something similar when he adapts some of Nietzsche’s words to show the way: “To become wise you must learn to listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar.”

What does the other side of denial driven by fear of death look like? Again, Harper is our guide. Sometimes she admits to feeling sad, angry, frightened and hurt. But, too, there are moments of hope and laughter. In other words, she allows herself the entire range of human emotions. And while Harper doesn’t believe in reincarnation, she finds herself curious about what the future may hold. “I have a lot of interest in what lies ahead.”

This is not spirituality for beginners, by any estimation. Inspired by Harper, as I waited for the result of my medical exams, I challenged myself into a state of deep acceptance. I could live thirty more years; I could die tomorrow. The question was not the length of my life, but that I missed as little of whatever life I have to live. As Harper says: “I’m not going to focus on the end until it becomes reality.” Embracing one’s own mortality, neither denying nor suppressing, while committing to live in the present moment as fully as possible, is a tall order, indeed. When I got the results of my tests back, and the prognosis was good, I had a double celebration. Not only do I have an indeterminate amount of runway ahead of me, but I’ve got a fair shot at not missing any more of it as I go.

The article in "People Magazine" leaves us in the end with an image of Valerie Harper standing on the edge of her lawn, gazing up at the stars. “Life,” Harper whispers, “Is amazing. Live it to the fullest. Stay as long as you can.”

So this is the legacy of Valerie Harper’s life in four words: “Don’t miss your life.”

What will yours be?

Carol Orsborn is Founder of FierceWithAge, the Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality. Dr. Orsborn is the best-selling author of 21 books including her newest book: Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. (Spring 2013) With a doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt, Dr. Orsborn is a sought after speaker/retreat leader and spiritual director.

Carol Orsborn Ph.D. is the Founder of FierceWithAge, the Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality. Dr. Orsborn is the best-selling author of 21 books including her newest book: Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. (Spring 2013) With a doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt, Dr. Orsborn is a sought after speaker/retreat leader and spiritual director.

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