Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Saying yes and saying no

Last fall the family of Arthur Chaskalson invited me to write Arthur’s biography. Arthur Chaskalson was a force for justice and law throughout his long and productive life. He was the first President of South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitutional Court, and before that he co-founded and then led the Legal Resources Centre, which played a crucial role in the remarkable campaign to use South African law itself to challenge apartheid and remains a steadfast voice for human rights in South Africa today. He was also my friend for 25 years until his death, at the age of 81, in 2012.

I was very excited to get this invitation – but then came my cancer diagnosis. At the time my chemotherapy began, my doctors didn’t want me to make any long-term work commitments. It was only as it became clear that I was doing well with the chemotherapy, so well that it seemed likely that the disease itself was being beaten back, that my oncologist told me that I could make a commitment to a two-year work project. And so I said yes to the family’s invitation, with great pleasure.

Two years is not a great deal of time to write about a life as full as Arthur’s. If it turns out I can keep working for longer than that, as I hope, I’m sure I can make the book more complete. But I believe I can tell Arthur’s story, and especially the part of that story that I had the privilege to be part of, in two years.

To do that, however, I’m realizing I have to be very focused. Everyone knows that in order to do one job, you have to be prepared to say you won’t do others, but now I see this fact more plainly. As Paul Kalanithi – a young neurosurgeon who suddenly faced, and ultimately succumbed to, cancer – wrote in his book When Breath Becomes Air (2016, at pp. 131-32), “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.” To put this point in somewhat different words, now I understand something that was always true: that each day’s time is precious. I will do more at work in these two years than just write this book – right now I’ve begun teaching again – but I will watch my commitments carefully. I now know, acutely, that saying no is part of saying yes.

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