He could have been a contender. Instead, he turned contemplative. And in doing so, Rudolph Giuliani, the brash mayor of New York, stunned more people than had any of his harsh rhetoric in the past. Even his week earlier admission of infidelity and a broken marriage seemed to pale in comparison to Giuliani's reflective statements about his prostate cancer and his decision not to seek the New York Senate seat. The mayor looked different. His face was relaxed and open, he seemed ready to laugh or cry. His voice was softer and more halting. And his words seemed unrehearsed and sincere, seeming to surprise even him. "Things happen in life for reasons that sometimes you only figure out afterwards," he said. "And there is something good that comes out of this. A lot of good things come out of it. I think I understand myself a lot better. I think I understand what's important to me better." Giuliani even came to the conclusion that politics isn't the most important thing in life. For most of us, this is not a revelation. But to a politician like Giuliani, the admission itself was something akin to Saul's conversion on the Damascus road. Said The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, "Mr. Giuliani's career, even more than most politicians, has been about power and control." In this surprising press conference, Giuliani seemed willing to give up both. He pledged to be a better mayor and to open more lines of communication. But mostly he said he wanted to spend time with those he
loved. Like Hemingway's Francis Macomber, whose brush with death gives him new life, Giuliani sounded almost giddy at times. Hemingway's character described it, "Like a dam bursting." Naturally there are skeptics. Herbert, himself, is one of them, saying the mayor's conversion comes "too late" and is "all about him." But anyone who has gone through a life-threatening disease or who has been close to someone who has, recognizes the honesty and self-examination that sometimes come in the moments when mortality knocks at the door. The shock and horror of a deadly diagnosis is offset by a mental and spiritual clarity that seems truly other worldly. "What can a man give in exchange for his soul?" asks the writer in Mark 8:37. Most people who face such a prognosis readily ask the same thing. My friend Lorraine, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, put it this way, "Suddenly everything seems so clear. Most of the things you were caught up in seem almost silly. And then you look at the really important things and realize you have been too busy to pay attention to them. Cancer wakes you up." Rudy Giuliani may fully recover and go on to run for the Senate or even the presidency in the future. If he does, he will be a much better man and politician for facing his mortality. And we should all learn a lesson from the mayor of New York. As my friend Lorraine says, "It shouldn't take cancer to wake us up to what's important in life."
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