After waging a courageous, year-and-a-half-long battle with pancreatic cancer, Patrick Swayze, an actor and classically-trained dancer whose leading roles in the blockbuster films Dirty Dancing and Ghost made him a popular movie star, died on Monday, September 14th. He was only 57 years old. "I'm proud of what I'm doing," Swayze told the New York Times last October when he was still filming The Beast, an A&E television series in which he starred as an unorthodox FBI agent. "How do you nurture a positive attitude when all the statistics say you're a dead man? You go to work."
Now how's that for inspiration? And Swayze's words and actions throughout his very personal and, unfortunately, sometimes very public ordeal also demonstrate and underscore that, in all situations, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude. This is a core principle of Viktor Frankl's System of Logotherapy, a meaning-centered approach to healing, health, and wellness, and is the first principle that I introduce in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts.
I have always admired Patrick Swayze, both as an actor and as a person. In addition, I've felt a kinship with him for many years because we both shared a passion for horses and for the martial arts. Interestingly enough, Swayze and his wife of more than 30 years, Lisa, own a ranch and lived part time not too far from my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is here, in the Land of Enchantment, where Swayze came when he wanted to get some true peace and quiet. "I fell in love with New Mexico when I was shooting Red Dawn," he told Variety magazine. "It's my healing place." The Swayzes even renewed their wedding vows at their New Mexico ranch in May 2008. This precious "meaning moment," I should add, took place in the midst of their campaign to overcome the deadly disease that was attacking Patrick's body.
Of course, we all know people, often people who are very close to us, who have passed on. We may even have experienced the death of loved ones who have also battled against terminal illnesses, like pancreatic cancer, for which no cure yet exists. And, if we are so fortunate, we may know people who, like Patrick Swayze, were inspirations and role models for us in ways that are not always easy to describe. In spite of the personal hardships and formidable challenges that they faced in life, these people, in no uncertain terms, represent human beings at their best, even if the human condition that they experienced was at its worst. Plagued by inescapable forces that robbed them of their physical strength and well-being, we bear witness to the resiliency and unlimited power of the human mind and spirit. We breathe, therefore we are spiritual; life is, therefore it is meaningful.
For those of you who have read my contributions before, you know that they are grounded firmly in the philosophy and approach of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of the classic bestseller Man's Search for Meaning, as well as the meaning-centered principles introduced in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts.
To honor Patrick Swayze's life and legacy, as well as the other inspirational role models who have left us more enriched by their presence, I would like here to introduce you to and/or remind you of a meaning-centered principle that requires your immediate attention from this day forward: "Detect the Meaning of Life's Moments." Said differently in Chapter 6 of my book, only you can answer for your own life by detecting the meaning at any given moment and assuming responsibility for weaving your unique tapestry of existence.
In actuality, we don't really "create" meaning, we find it. And we can't find it if we don't look for it. Meaning comes to us in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looms big in our lives (like when we are diagnosed with a terminal disease as did Patrick Swayze); sometimes it slips in almost unobserved (like when we are greeted at home by a spouse or child after work). Sometimes we miss a meaningful moment entirely until days, months, or even years go by and then suddenly something that once seemed insignificant becomes a pivotal, life-changing moment. Sometimes, too, it is the collective meaning of many moments that finally catches our mind's eye; as if we weave together a living quilt from patches of moments that, by themselves, would have passed us by unnoticed.
And although we are not always aware of it, meaning, as Dr. Frankl would say, is in every present moment. It goes without saying- - wherever we go. All we have to do, in our daily life and at work, is to wake up to meaning and take notice. And, importantly, we don't have to wait until we face death in the eye to wake up to meaning and take notice (however, often it takes becoming conscious of our own mortality before we recognize this important fact of life!).
I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning...Life retains its meaning under any conditions. It remains meaningful literally up to its last moment, up to one's last breath.--Viktor Frankl
It has been said that it is more important to be aware than it is to be smart. To be aware is to know meaning. Importantly, by reflecting upon our existence and seeking to detect the meaning of life's moments, we also create opportunities to draft our life's legacy, albeit as a work in progress, before it is our time to die and experience what Socrates said "may be the greatest of all human blessings." And thank you, Patrick, for being such an inspiration and role model for all of us. You will be missed but never forgotten.
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
founder, Center for Meaning
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