The response to the death of Stephen Sutton has been profound. The inspirational 19 year old, who with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, decided to use every day he had left to him to live to his mantra of “it’s not how long you live, it’s the experiences you have” has been extraordinary. We do not expect 19 year olds to die of cancer. We do not expect 19 year olds to use their experience as a focus for raising millions of pounds. We do not expect 19 year olds to face death head on. We do not expect those things, not because he was 19, but because it is not how most people deal with impending death.
What Stephen did was to decide, if he could not have the life expectancy he expected, how could he create a purpose for his life? He did it with such energy, positivity and humour that he became an irresistible force: as signalled in the celebrities and politicians lining up to be associated with him. More crucially, in the creation of the purpose, he made the process of his dying easier.
We know from all the research on resilience that it is the creation of purpose that gets people through the tough times. It is being able to decide that as difficult as a situation is, I can choose to create meaning from it. It is seen in accounts of prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors. It is seen in the stories of families who create campaigns and charities, following the death of a family member. It is seen in the accounts of children who decide that they will fight the odds and escape from challenging family backgrounds. There is nothing more valuable than purpose. It gives us a compass point for our actions. It makes us persist when it would be easier to give up. It makes people commit to doing work that is not financially rewarding but feeds their sense of purpose.
We react to Stephen Sutton’s story, because in his creation of purpose, he reminds us that if we have the luxury of more time for our living, we owe it to ourselves to live with purpose.