Keeva on Life and Practice

Managing Mortality

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Laurence gonzales has al­ways been fascinated by what he calls “the boundary zone between normal life and when really bad things happen.” It’s a territory he knows intimately and ex­plores in extraordinary detail in his engrossing new book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.

I met Laurence in February and intended, with his help, to wring from Deep Survival some useful insights on why it is that certain people survive horrible ordeals while others succumb—and then to apply those lessons somehow to lawyers. I wondered whether ex­periences from the lives of lawyers might reach the same levels of profound discovery that Laurence, a Chicago writer, describes in his book (for more, go to

So I sent out an e-mail to a handful of lawyers, asking them to comment on some of the survival principles that appear in the book. (I included several in the e-mail.)

In a flash, I heard back from Sam Guiberson, a Houston lawyer I’ve known for about 15 years but had been out of touch with for some time. He had always been a great one for cogent, publishable quotes, but this time his words shocked me. It turns out he had been diagnosed in 1999 with a sarcoma of the sinus cavity, a cancer that is lethal in two out of three cases.

Sam attached a narrative description of his illness and recovery. It’s an extraordinary document, as instructive as any tale of survival in the wild. And so, by happenstance, I had found a lawyer’s story that seemed to run parallel with what Laurence describes in Deep Survival. With Sam’s permission, I sent it on to Laurence, who found it riveting and agreed to comment on the following excerpts. They begin after Sam learned of his diagnosis in a phone call from his neurologist.

“I put down the phone, walked slowly past the conference table and banks of computers, past the file cabinets that held privileged secrets of so many renowned cases and clients, past the wall-mounted media accounts that commemorated so many satisfying moments in my professional life, and into my wife’s office to tell her I had cancer. …

“Through the chemo, kidney failure, massive cranial and facial surgery, intense radiation, the years of uncertainty about the outcome and the physical damage done by the disease as well as by the cure, what I lost was not my life; what I gained from cancer was my birth.”

LG: Successful survivors make a journey. I call it the survival journey, and it takes them through a spiritual transformation. It’s not unlike the vision quest practiced in certain Na­tive American cultures. And it is, indeed, a rebirth.

“When people ask me what it is that I regret most about having had to confront the pain and suffering, mortal fear and the prospect of death, my answer is that I have only one regret. I regret that I did not have cancer sooner.”

LG: This reminds me of Lauren Elder, who I wrote about in the book. She was in a plane crash in which two people died, and she was stranded on an icy mountain in the Sierra Nevada. She survived, and she told me she sometimes missed that experience. She was almost nostalgic about it. She said she missed the clarity of knowing precisely what she had to do next—or else she’d die. I’ve found that all survivors look back on the experience and cherish it. They’re like Sam, grateful for having had it.

“The explanation of my one regret is the story of why I survived.”

LG: He is exactly right. If he didn’t have a grateful attitude, he wouldn’t have survived. Steve Callahan, who was adrift in a raft for 76 days, said he felt a sense of wealth and gratitude even as he was starving and nearly dying of thirst, his body covered with sores from salt water. He called it a view of heaven from a seat in hell.

“After the biopsy, I was out of the hospital sooner than the residue of anesthesia left my body. Swimming in hallucinations and fear, all my imagery was morbid. The decay of the body, visualizing the tumor breaking through my skin to leave me a grotesque outcast, and the shock of losing in a single moment the false-positive assumption that all would always be as it always had been.”

LG: The fear, the morbidness is perfectly normal. The important thing here is that Sam did not succumb to the dark feelings. Good survivors feel fear just like the rest of us. But they turn fear into anger and use it to power their survival efforts and fix their resolve.


“There were many times in the months that followed that I was treated as if I were already a corpse.”

LG: A survivor’s primary tool, at least initially, is his attitude that he alone is responsible for what happens to him. He is a rescuer, not a victim, and he must rescue himself even when—and especially when—he feels most abandoned and alone.

“As the days pass, you choose. Will you live in anticipation of death or face death in anticipation of life? The answer came to me in one sentence: ‘Cancer may kill me,’ and then I would add triumphantly, ‘but not today!’ In that acknowledgment, I accepted mortality and life at the same time.”

LG: There are five stages in survival, like the five stages of dying described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her famous book, On Death and Dying. In dying they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In survival, that last stage is commitment. A survivor can always find one more thing to do before giving up. He’ll concentrate on getting through the day, no matter what the future may hold.

“I imagined that if the worst did come, as I then thought it would, I would escape through the hole in each minute through which that one minute would become all the time I really needed. The last second, I expected, would be infinite. There would always be plenty of time to heal.”

LG: A survivor will at some point in the journey find an almost oceanic feeling of oneness with the universe. As corny as it sounds, some hard-bitten wilderness people have described exactly that: a spiritual transformation that releases them from fear of death. That gives them the strength to go on, despite the odds.

“What came to me in those final moments of consciousness before the doctors removed the left side of my face wasn’t at all morbid or fearful. It was pure tranquility, an openness to all that was to come. The prospect of living and the prospect of dying were not different from each other.”

LG: Survivors almost always report some point, when things seemed bleakest, being filled with an inexplicable energy that powers them through the toughest parts. Lauren Elder found herself having to to climb down sheer rock cliffs, though she had no experience or equipment and, in fact, was wearing a miniskirt and go-go boots. We have resources hidden deep within us that only this sort of experience—or Sam’s—can bring out.

“When the surgery was only a few days away, my son Noah sat beside me on a bench while we were out with our dog. I explained to him what the procedure would do to rid me of this cancer. He interrupted me with a question: ‘Dad, are you going to live?’ Before I answered, I remember there was an inner gathering, something within me that told me this reply was not to be given lightly, but rather from a place within me that I had never spoken from before. I looked into his eyes and gave my answer: ‘Yes I will.’ From that moment on, in me, there was never doubt.”

LG: Survivors always report doing it for someone else. Even as they let go of their attachment to the familiar world in order to concentrate all their energy on the crisis at hand, they keep an all-important connection back home: “I’m doing it for my son” is a very common theme. Mothers, spouses, even pets have filled this role in a survivor’s vision of where he or she is headed.

“I would not believe, had I not stood before it, that there was a well within me that would not empty, a well within the living that is the origin of life, of a depth we do not comprehend, out of which we can draw the strength of mind to heal, to adapt and to survive, well beyond our understanding but never beyond our reach.”

LG: We all have a mountain to climb. It just may not be made of stone. And we all have a wilderness inside. It’s the most mysterious and beautiful—and sometimes dangerous—one we’ll ever explore. Sam here is expressing his experience of having explored that wilderness and discovered its baffling and beautiful paradoxes.


“I relaxed. I began to worry not at all about how long I would or would not live. On the days without chemo, I began lifting weights with a family friend. Those young college athletes must have wondered why this pale and hairless man put another extra weight on the stack to celebrate every day. To them, it was just another day. To that bald man with a walnut-sized cancer in his head, it was—today.”

LG: John Leach, a survival psychologist, calls this “survival by surrender.” Survival contains many paradoxes, and this is one of them. You must let go of caring whether you live or die, even while you are going on with total commitment. That allows you to relax and do the next right thing. You take huge, seemingly impossible tasks (I’ll beat cancer; I’ll drift 1,800 miles to the Caribbean) and break them into small manageable tasks. In Sam’s case, he just took the next step, worked out, got through the day. And it healed him like a miracle drug.

Today, Sam is well, no longer at risk. After reading his story, I was left with one burning question: Did the experience have any impact on the way he practices law?

It did indeed. “I abandoned all those behaviors from my previous professional life that had been unrewarding to me: managing a large staff, overextending myself with time or money to feed more conventional notions of what a lawyer should be, should have or should do.”

Now, Sam says, he operates much more within the boundaries of those aspects of his work that he enjoys. “I now have no interest in imitating how others may define their professional success,” he says. “Time is precious.”

Steven Keeva, an ABA Journal assistant managing editor, is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satis­fac­­tion in the Legal Life.

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