Inspiration amid darkness

I write today to recommend an inspiring story I read recently in my favorite magazine, The New Yorker. Titled “A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act,” the story details how Eric Sun, a Silicon Valley millionaire, and his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. On learning that he did not have long to live, Sun responded by renewing his passion for the violin.

Sun had natural talent for music, but his dedication growing up, the author tells us, was mostly the result of his parents pushing him through lessons. His technique was excellent, but his teachers often found themselves urging him to play with more emotion.

He excelled in school and, after finishing his master’s degree at Stanford University, landed a job at Facebook. He rose through the company to become a high-level manager. Meanwhile, he met a girl, who also played music growing up, and they got married. Music continued to hum in the background, but between his busy job and home life, it was not at the center of his efforts.

In 2016, Sun was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer. With his wife’s support, he tried surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Nothing seemed to keep the disease at bay.

And yet he was still able to wake up in the morning and write Facebook posts like this one: “Every day I wake up not dead is a gift.” He began compiling lists of things he wanted to accomplish with his remaining time. Among them were mastering several challenging pieces for the violin.

He tackled Bach, Paganini and Mendelssohn. He even returned to a Brahms’ first violin sonata, a piece originally written to balm the pain of losing a child. Sun had originally suggested trying the piece to his private teacher as a teenager; the teacher responded “Absolutely not.” When, late in his illness, Sun reconnected with the teacher, he found himself playing with the emotion whose absence was the reason his teacher cautioned against it. Sun would go on to stage public performances of the Brahms sonata and other pieces.

The author of this story, James B. Stewart, typically writes about business and the stock market; he broke a huge story, some almost 30 years ago, about insider trading. But here, he is attuned to the way that Sun finds new ways to be human.

The crisis of Sun’s illness forces him into a kind of meditative state. Told they have little time to live, people can understandably panic or grow desperate. But it is also not uncommon to hear stories of people becoming incredibly focused, driven to do things they always wanted in the time they have left.

Lessons abound here for yoga practitioners, but here’s one that stood out to me: Sun not only found  a way to restructure his priorities, he went back to something that was always a part of his life, and found a new way of doing it. Through his courage in the face of something that can only be described as cosmically unfair, he began deemphasizing technique in favor of emotion. For those of us who get caught up in asana, this is a valuable insight.

 

Something that he had approached as effort

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