Geologic Column: Get busy living!

by Fred Schwab
Monday, November 3, 2014

Credit: ©

“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” So says a long-imprisoned, recently released convict grappling with the task of facing life in the world outside the prison walls in the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” In many ways, it makes a fitting question for one who has just faced a health crisis, as I recently learned.

I’m writing this column soon after spending much of the past three months “imprisoned” in (albeit wonderful) hospitals in Seattle, Wash., and Char­lottesville, Va., as well as under home health care “arrest.” Since my “release” in late August, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my career, my physical condition and life. And I’ve decided to get personal.

Eleven years after having my faulty aortic valve swapped for a porcine replacement, this transplant became infected during periodontal treatments. It has now been replaced by a bovine valve that purportedly will serve me until age 98 (here’s hoping I make it that long).

The end of the medical attention and final release from the hospitals felt different than I anticipated it would. Instead of elation, I felt dependent and despondent. As my wife drove us from Charlottesville to our home in the Shenandoah Valley, I admired the gorgeous scenery but noted to her that my body seemed to be weathering faster than the Appalachians. Once home, I still had 35 days of IV antibiotics. I wasn’t sure life as a dependent invalid was for me. And despite the tremendous emotional support I was lucky to have, I wavered over whether I should get busy living, or dying.

What turned me around? The first morning home, I received a long message from a former student who had taken my historical geology class 15 years ago. She described the impact that the class had had on her life perspective. She had married a Washington and Lee classmate, and, several years ago, had suffered through the death of their infant son. She wrote how she had used my compressed calendar of the age of Earth, the solar system and the universe to place her own loss in temporal perspective.

Her letter touched me like nothing else could. I would have gratefully exchanged annual raises for occasional letters like hers from past students! I wrote back and offered my condolences on her loss. Then I told her of the crucial role her letter had played in helping me decide which path I would take — namely, to get busy living.

Courtesy of my thankfully temporary invalidity, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve rekindled my creative fires and enthusiasm at various times throughout my life and career, and the keys, for me at least, to resuming a fulfilling life.

During my career as a college professor, I had opportunities to step aside from my everyday academic duties and take off on a couple of sabbaticals. Sabbatical leaves are a great cure-all if one is lucky enough to be offered them. You can pack up, vacate the office and focus either on new research projects or on much-needed vacation. I spent two different years in the French Alps. My family and I tasted a different culture and lifestyle and learned to be a little less America-centric. If you have the chance to take a sabbatical, do NOT pass it up.

Likewise, take vacations! We all love feeling indispensable, but the truth is we’re all replaceable. Vacations are necessary breaks; they almost invariably make us happier and healthier. And vacations are contagious; because they make us feel better, they often make those around us feel better too. So don’t be tempted to take money for unused vacations or to simply roll over unspent time year after year. You don’t know how much time you have.

Another hint: Share all of yourself — not just the pretty parts or the expected parts. I’ve learned to shake myself out of my “professor persona” to reveal more of my whole personality to colleagues and students alike. If you’re in academia, geology field trips can be a great time to share more of yourself. Likewise, re-engage with colleagues. Walk into the office of a co-worker and offer to treat him or her to lunch. Get to know one another.

In the working world, change up what you do as often as you can. Whether in academia, the oil and gas fields or on Wall Street, it’s usually worthwhile to break out of the “competency curse” — that is, becoming so skilled at what you do that you are trapped in repetitious tasks. Change course offerings, switch research interests, try new approaches, techniques and even fields. Doing so may quickly rekindle your intellectual engine; it did mine.

I definitely would have preferred that the near-death experience happen to a character in a movie. But in real life, such experiences provide a unique perspective on life and career. I hope what I’ve learned can benefit others. Other than a bovine craving for freshly cut hay, I’m happy!

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