I woke up Wednesday morning to the news that Stephen Hawking had passed away. My first thought made me smile — that this incredible scientist who seemed to just will himself to stay alive against overwhelming odds, died on March 14th — Pi Day. Maybe that was his choice. Who knows?
Stephen Hawking was a thinker — a brilliant scientist, professor and author who was known for his groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology. His books aimed to make science accessible to everyone, and some of his more well-known works include A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, and A Briefer History of Time.
At the age of 21, Stephen was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and given two to three years to live. Not surprisingly, after his diagnosis he dealt with depression, but was able to recover and go on to live 55 more years than originally expected. When asked how he was able to move past his depression, Professor Hawking mentioned two occurrences that impacted him. One happened while he was still in the hospital after his diagnosis. His roommate was a boy with leukemia, and Hawking felt that put his own situation in perspective. The other event was a dream he had in which he was going to be executed. This dream made him realize how much he wanted to live — he had so much he wanted to accomplish in his life.
At a lecture he gave in 2016 at The Royal Institution in London, Professor Hawking alluded to depression when he explained to his audience that it is possible to escape from a black hole of despair:
The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought… Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up — there’s a way out.
What an inspiration! To hear this message of hope from someone who many would say had every reason to be depressed is so uplifting.
In addition to always being hopeful, Stephen Hawking also lived a life filled with gratitude. Just reading some of his quotes makes this fact quite clear:
Although I was unfortunate to get motor neurone disease, I have been very fortunate in almost everything else.
I have been lucky to work in theoretical physics at a fascinating time and it’s one of the few areas in which my disability was not a serious handicap.
It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life may seem because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and life in general.
There is so much we can all learn from this extraordinary man. Confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak with his own voice, and completely dependent on others for all activities of daily living, he still lived life to the fullest — with an amazing attitude. He pursued his goals, put things in perspective, let go of anger, honored his values and maintained his sense of humor. He was grateful for every single minute of his life, as he was acutely aware of the possibility he might not live another day.
There are so many lessons to be learned here — perhaps the most important being that we should celebrate life, with all its limitations and all its possibilities, every day. And when we need a little extra inspiration, we can look to Stephen Hawking as a shining example of a life lived well.