The dying often strike me as having the most profound insights into life. Perhaps because their time left is finite – actually everyone’s is, except we don’t know when, where, or how we’ll leave this physical plane – they make the most of everyday, almost all reflecting on the life they’ve led, quite often regretful for the choices they have made.
I was in bed last night, about to shove off to see Confucius, who I have nightly dates with, when His Royal Highness started reading the speech given by one Dr. Richard Teo, at the Dental Christian Fellowship. Usually, His Royal Highness has no interest in anything with the word Christian in it, or any other religion for that matter, and frankly, neither have I, except that this Dr. Richard Teo was a 40 year old millionaire cosmetic surgeon with stage 4 lung cancer. In other words, this man was the same age as His Royal Highness and terminally ill. Now he’s dead.
We’re often thrown by the passing of another person our age because, rather narcissistically, and there’s no shame in this, we wonder how much time we have left. I read his voluminous address until the end because I was curious to know why this man chose God after a lifetime of chasing money. Although it is a speech with a pronounced Christian-slant, these are the insights into society and the human condition that I gleaned from reading it:
1) Man as God. He said, “I’m a typical product of today’s society. Before this, I was talking about how the media influences us etc. So I’m a typical product of what the media portrays. From young, I’ve always been under the influence and impression that to be happy, is to be successful. And to be successful, is to be wealthy. So I led my life according to this motto.”
2) Wrong heroes, flawed ideals. “The truth is, nobody makes heroes out of the average GP in the neighbourhood. They don’t. They make heroes out of rich celebrities, politicians, rich and famous people. So I wanted to be one of these. I dived straight into aesthetic medicine. People were not willing to pay when I was doing locum back in those days. Anything more than $30, they would complain that “Wah, this lo kun (doctor) jing qwee (very expensive)”. They made noise and they were not happy. But the same people were willing to pay $10 000 for a liposuction. So I said, ‘Well, let’s stop healing the sick, I’m gonna become a beautician; a medically-trained beautician.’”
3) Everyone wants to pay. I learnt this when I tried to give away some of my old clothes. Even though they were mostly new, no one wanted them. People want to pay for things. He said, “There was so much demand that people were literally queuing up to have aesthetic work done on them. Vain women – easy life!”
4) We are arrogant, know-it-alls. “I had a lot more things to pursue in NUS – girls, studies, sports etc. After all, I had achieved all these things without God, so who needs God? I, myself, can achieve anything I want.”
5) When God gives you a sign, it may not be what you want. “I told Danny and my friends, “If God really wants me to come back to church, He will give me a sign.” Lo and behold, 3 weeks later, I was back at church.” He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
6) Obviously fit people can be seriously ill. “I was still running around, ‘cause I’m a gym freak and I always go to the gym training, running, swimming 6 days a week. I had some backache, and that’s all I had, but it was persistent. And so I went for an MRI to exclude prolapsed disc. And the day before I had my scan, I was still in the gym, lifting heavy weights, doing my squats. And the next day, they found that half my spine had bone marrow replacement. I said, “Woah, sorry, what’s that?”
7) Life can change in an instant. Dr. Richard Teo had bought a Ferrari, was about to buy a piece of land to build a house in Singapore. Anyone who knows anything about Singapore knows how much it costs to own landed property. He was going to buy land.
He said, “Can’t be, I was just at the gym last night, what’s going on?” I’m sure you know how it feels – though I’m not sure if you know how it feels. One moment I was there at the peak, the next day, this news came and I was totally devastated. My whole world just turned upside down.”
8) We all hear voices. This disembodied voice said to Dr. Richard Teo, “’This has to happen to YOU, at YOUR prime, because this is the only way YOU can understand.’ At that time, my emotions just overflowed and I broke down and cried, alone there. And I knew then, subsequently, what it means to understand that why this is the only way.”
“If I were diagnosed with stage 1 or 2, I would have been looking around busily for the best cardiothoracic surgeon, remove a section of the lobe (do a lobectomy), do preventive chemotherapy…The chances of it being cured is extremely high. Who needs God? But I had stage 4B. No man can help, only God can.”
9) We are stubborn. “I wasn’t sold after that, because of the inner voice, I became believing, prayers, all that. No I wasn’t. To me, it was just ‘maybe there was a voice; or maybe that was just me talking to myself.’ I didn’t buy the story.”
10) Knowledge can be a torture. “You know, once you have the clinical knowledge, you know the statistics. One year survival, two year survival; having all this knowledge is not a good thing. Cos you live with the knowledge that even with all this, the cancer cells are so unstable, they keep mutating. They will overcome and become resistant to the drugs, and eventually you’re gonna run out of medication.”
11) Material objects don’t give true joy. “I thought true joy is about pursuing wealth. Why? Cos let me put it to you this way, in my death bed, I found no joy whatsoever in whatever objects I had – my Ferrari, thinking of the land I was going to buy to build my bungalow etc, having a successful business.”
“It brought me ZERO comfort, ZERO joy, nothing at all. Do you think I can hold onto this piece of metal and it’s going to give true joy? Nah, it’s not going to happen.”
12) True joy comes from interacting with other people. “When you pursue your wealth, Chinese New Year is the best time to do it. Drive my Ferrari, show off to my relatives, show off to my friends, do my rounds, and then you thought that was true joy? You really think that those guys who sold you your Ferrari, they share their joy with you? And your relatives, wow, they share this joy with you? In truth, what you have done is just illicit envy, jealousy, and even hatred. They are not sharing the joy with you, and what I have is that short-term pride that wow, I have something you don’t have! And I thought that was joy!”
13) We need to sort out our priorities. “Don’t be like me – I had no other way. I had to learn it through the hard way. I had to come back to God to thank Him for this opportunity because I’ve had 3 major accidents in my past – car accidents. You know, these sports car accidents – I was always speeding , but somehow I always came out alive, even with the car almost being overturned. And I wouldn’t have had a chance. Who knows, I don’t know where else I’d be going to! Even though I was baptised it was just a show, but the fact that this has happened, it gave me a chance to come back to God.”
14) The more we have, the more we want. “There is nothing wrong with being rich or wealthy. I think it’s absolutely all right, because God has blessed (us). So many people are blessed with good wealth, but the trouble is I think a lot of us can’t handle it.”
15) None of it belongs to us. “When you start to build up wealth and when the opportunity comes, do remember that all these things don’t belong to us. We don’t really own it nor have rights to this wealth. It’s actually God’s gift to us. Remember that it’s more important to further His Kingdom than to further ourselves.”
So that’s my summation of the key points from Dr. Richard’s Teo’s speech. Do read it for yourself. It certainly prompted His Royal Highness, a borderline atheist, to bring it to my attention, and made an agnostic like myself sit up and take notice.