A couple of months ago I was back in Sheffield and I attended a particular event that happens yearly, this was my third time attending it, last year I had also volunteered on the ticket stall. It was the 24 Hour Inspire event, aimed at raising money for charity.
24 Hour Inspire is a series of 48 half-hour lectures run back-to-back by different people (uni lecturers, researchers etc.), lectures/talks on all sorts of serious and funky topics, below are some examples:
- Rise of the machines: robots and fiction
- Balls of steel: hints and tips for good fertility
- Brain fizz: making your mind up
- The Blues of Physics
- It is getting hot in here: what should we do about climate change
- Giant microscopes: the big science of very small stuff
- Using History to Make Sense of the American Presidential Race
- Can the Bible Help us Solve the Migration Crisis?
So yeah, lectures go on for a full 24 hours, starting at 5pm on one day, ending at 5pm the next day! I kid you not, the lecture hall at 1am was more full than many of my academic course lectures throughout my degree, not an exaggeration…
Aside from conveying some important information on serious topics such as climate change it also serves to inspire an interest in different subjects, topics and areas of life. What’s more, the funds collected through ticket sales are put into the charity called Inpiration for Life, which raises funds for cancer research and treatment. Inspiration for Life aims to promote lifelong learning and the public understanding of science. Inspiration for Life was founded by Dr Tim Richardson. Who was that? Tim’s story is worth knowing about…
Tim was a Physics lecturer at the University of Sheffield, a rather different but very inspirational lecturer as I have heard from his students. He’d do crazy fun experiments in his lectures, he had a sense of humour, and he had a passion for helping students achieve the best they could, and unlike many lecturers/professors he put a lot of focus time and energy towards his undergraduate students, not only PhD students who help with actual research. Dr Tim Richardson passed away in February 2013. You don’t hear students generally talk about their lecturers the way Tim’s students talk about him, they still remember him, they still get involved in helping out in his charity, Inspiration for Life. But, how did Inspiration for Life and the 24 Hour Inspire event start…
Tim was diagnosed with terminal cancer on 8th June 2012. On 8th June 2012, Tim started writing a journal because “he immediately started to think what he could do to help other people, to bring something good out of his nightmare”. Tim was given 9-12 months to live by doctors,
Tim’s diary is the thoughts of a man who knows he is going to die soon, a man who is in pain, but a man with a sense of humour and an incredible mental fortitude. Imagine being diagnosed with cancer today and immediately thinking about how you could help other people through this…..I can’t….but Tim did. The diary is meant to give readers a perspective on life that you can’t get from many other places, and allow you to learn from that perspective so that you can perhaps change your lives for the better.
Tim’s diary is called ‘For when I’m Sleeping’. It is a heart-breaking read, it’s an inspirational read. Tim said, “I hope that in reading about one person’s fight, that the amazing gift of life is even more special to you than ever you thought before”
Tim started the Inspiration for Life charity to raise funds for cancer research and treatment and as part of that launched the 24 Hour Inspire Event; and hear this, if you haven’t yet been amazed by Tim, you should be when you find out that the first 24 Hour Inspire event was delivered solely by Tim himself….yes….he lectured for 24 hours straight all by himself and in the process raised £8000 for the charity Children In Need. Here’s a video of from that event
“I’ve been here (Sheffield University) 21 years and all is going well….I’ve loved teaching students for those years, teaching them in my mad way with lectures full of demonstrations, some complicated, others incredibly simple like a tennis ball tethered to a piece of string – but how the students loved it when I pretended I was going to try to hit them by releasing the ball at just the right instant! I’ve also had a research family from 1991 until 2012 – about 30 PhD students who I have thought of as sons and daughters.”
A video of the 24 Hour Inspire 2013:
Tim passed away within a year of being diagnosed but his charity continues and the 24 Hour Inspire event also continues every year, well worth going to as anyone who has been would testify. Below are just a few profound passages from his diary, For when I’m Sleeping and some notes on some of them:
“The consultant told me today I most probably have bowel cancer….
….from the moment I stepped out of the hospital, it is as if I am seeing the world and everything in it more intensely than ever before. The leaves of the trees are greener than they were yesterday, the wild flowers in the grass verges are brighter and more beautiful, the smiles on little kids’ faces are broader and I can hear the music of every sound more clearly….
…But the news hasn’t really sunk in yet…I’m having selfish moments when I start to dwell on the negative. I can’t expect other people to be positive for me without me leading the race.”
“Suddenly time is a weird concept….
….There’s a profound link between ticking clocks and death that I feel strongly now. How many ticks do I have?”
“We often lose sight of what we want in life, we often stop thinking about what we want….I want to work out how our lives can change so that we are happier during every hour of every day. I think we’ll cook nicer meals, we’ll have more dinner parties and put more effort into friendships and family time.”
“A really great tonic if you feel unwell is to do something nice for someone else – I’ll be able to think about him receiving it tomorrow and enjoying it (a book for his dad)”
“I do think I’ve felt a little sorry for myself during the last two days. I need to focus on how much worse my situation could be. I could be a 5 year old boy with this condition, or a soldier coming home from war with no legs.”
“I’m crying hard now, the deep sadness is here again and I’m in the darkest of places. I hope I can find some light to continue tomorrow”
“Humour and laughter – these are the keys to unlock the darkness. I must always turn to them when desperation strikes”
“I am incredibly lucky. I don’t think there could be a luckier person in this world because I am at the focal point of all this good energy. I only hope I can be a worthy recipient”
“I find it personally quite offensive when I see someone or hear of someone who has just wasted year upon year doing little more than absorbing TV and making food their primary focus in life”
“I will not settle for being in some average band near the peak of the distribution, I want to be the most outlying outlier on the upside of the Gaussian curve.”
“I imagine there are some people who are not terminally ill who can somehow manage to live their lives as if every day was going to be their last, but these are few and far between, I’m sure. However, when you are terminally ill, this gift appears in front of you like some sort of light beckoning you into positive and productive thought. I’m not sure yet if this gift comes from your inner self or from God”
Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor in his journal said: “Perfection of character is this, to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense.”
Entry for Day 82:
…I need to write one more thing to close today’s entry…I think it deserves upper case letters because it feels important, it is probably revealing, it might be shocking even.
NOW THAT I HAVE FULLY ACCEPTED THAT I HAVE CANCER AND AM FIGHTING ITS AGGRESSION WITH EVERYTHING I CAN MUSTER, I HAVE NEVER FELT MORE ALIVE THAN NOW, I HAVE NEVER FELT MORE ZEST FOR LIFE, I HAVE NEVER FELT THAT LIFE IS SO SPECIAL AS NOW, I HAVE NEVER FELT SO FILLED WITH THE LIGHT OF LIFE AS I NOW FEEL.
CANCER IS A GIFT AND I MUST USE THIS GIFT TO ACHIEVE TASKS I SET MYSELF AND TO MEET CHALLENGES I GIVE MYSELF. I MUST USE IT TO HELP OTHERS AND TO LOVE THOSE AROUND ME MORE THAN I HAVE EVER LOVED THEM BEFORE.”
These words sound like an echo of the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky (one of the most remarkable novelists in history, author of what is considered by many as the greatest novel ever written, The Brothers Karamazov) after the ordeal he faced, he too faced death, he was one minute away from being shot by firing squad after being given a death sentence; only at the last moment did he find out he had been pardoned. Immediately after, he wrote this letter to his brother
Brother ! I have not become downhearted or low-spirited. Life is everywhere life, life in ourselves, not in what is outside us. There will be people near me, and to be a man among people and remain a man for ever, not to be downhearted nor to fall in whatever
misfortunes may befall me — this is life ; this is the task of life. I have realised this. This idea has entered into my flesh and into my blood. Yes, it ‘s true ! The head which was creating, living with the highest life of art, which had realised and grown used to the highest needs of the spirit, that head has already been cut off from my shoulders.
There remain the memory and the images created but not yet incarnated by me. They will lacerate me, it is true ! But there remains in me my heart and the same flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life. On voit le soleil ! Now, good-bye, brother ! Don’t grieve for me !
“Life is a strange concept and our view of it changes a lot when suddenly there are no apparent certainties. The basic fact is, however, that there never are any uncertainties. We just all go round thinking we will live forever because we are inherently life-loving creatures, but none of us know the date of our doom. Perhaps people like me have a slightly better idea, but that’s all it is really, a better estimate.”
We all go around thinking we will live forever – Robert Greene in his book The 33 Strategies of War writes a chapter on the Death-Ground Strategy where he says “Quite often we feel somewhat lost in our actions….Our daily patterns and routines help us avoid feeling directionless, but there is always the niggling thought that we could accomplish so much more. We waste so much time. Upon occasion all of us have felt a sense of urgency. Most often it is imposed from outside: we fall behind in our work, we inadvertently take on more than we can handle, responsibility for something is thrust into our hands. Now everything changes; no more freedom. We have to do this, we have to fix that. The surprise is always how much more spirited and more alive this makes us feel; now everything we do seems necessary.” This is death-ground strategy, an old concept that even Sun-Tzu talked about over 2000 years ago in his timeless book The Art of War, putting your army in a position where they are facing death and they have to fight like hell to get out alive, with their back to a mountain feature, or the famous ‘burn the boats’ situation. This is the mindset that Tim now had, the mindset that Dostoevsky also had after his experience at the shooting ground. Dostoevsky is used as an example by Robert Greene for this chapter.
“I am beginning to form an idea that links this gift with the idea of suffering. Many people say that they cannot believe in a god because of all the suffering in the world. Gradually, I am believing that the suffering itself is the gift! What we choose to do with it marks our character and our strength and perhaps even our value as humans. But I haven’t rationalised the suffering of tiny babies or small children yet though they show even more character and strength than adults since they do not have the luxury of verbal communication, and perhaps that is the point”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov: “I want to suffer and be purified by suffering” (A lot of the thoughts of the characters in this book are a reflection of the ideas and thoughts that have plagued Dostoevsky’s mind throughout his life)
Ivan Karamazov, the intellectual character in the book, also goes through the same questioning whereby he comes to accept suffering and pain but questions the suffering of innocent children: “grown-ups…ate the apple…and they still go on eating it. But the little children have not eaten anything and are not yet guilty of anything…they are punished for their fathers who ate the apple – but that is reasoning from another world…it is impossible that a blameless child should suffer for another….”
In a bizarre way, as well as killing you, cancer can save you! It can save you from never really thinking about your life in the past, present and future, and never using your last months or years to do things for yourself and for others that you know will have a lasting legacy”
“I’m back in the dark this morning. It’s so dark, darker than the blackest black I’ve ever seen. I’m buried in layers or darkness, pressing me down”
“Sometimes prayers do not work”
“Words from the heart can change your life and stay with you for all of its journey. Those words (something his wife, Sue, said to him many years ago) will never leave me”
“I have to be positive”
Tim’s legacy continues through his family, his students and through Inspiration for Life as well as those who take a lesson or two from his raw and honest diary. Whatever, your circumstance, there’s gonna be good times and there’s also gonna be days that’s just s**t. Live through them, learn, create, appreciate, do something great, do something small, just don’t waste it away. Remembering that one day you are going to die is the best way of maintaining presence of mind and being in the moment. We spend our lives trying to make the things around us better, a better job, a better salary, a better phone, always working to that next big thing, the foundation of the ‘rat race’, it is nothing new. While it is impractical to instead just stay in the same place, it is important to realise the relative importance of different things, but we don’t because we tend to think we’ll live forever. In Fight Club, when the narrator loses a tooth and starts getting upset by it, Tyler Durden’s response is “Hey, even the Mona Lisa is falling apart”.
Tim’s diary gives us the perspective of a man who has a short time to live, but in view of the infinite chasm of time before and after us, neither do the rest of us. Marcus Aurelius’ words in his self-directed journal go as:
“No, You do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.”
“Just as if a god told you that you would die tomorrow or at least the day after tomorrow, you would attach no importance to the difference of one day, unless you are a complete coward, such is the tiny gap of time: so you should think there no great difference between life to the umpteenth year and life to tomorrow”