200 Days – “The gods envy us because we are mortal…” Last year, I posted 200 years or 200 days – part 1 which looked at the progress toward and implications of living 200 years. It is indeed almost inevitable that our understanding of aging and human biology will increase our life and health span, and dramatically change how we live and what we believe we can get out of life.
This is part 2, and addresses 200 days. We all live today with the knowledge that our time on this earth is limited. Few of us know how limited. Maybe we have 30, 50, 75, or perhaps even 100 or 125, years left to live. Maybe not. I once heard that though we all know we are going to die, few of us truly believe it. The possibility of living 200 years is still a hypothetical and hard to imagine; for most of us, the possibility of having 200 days (or less) to live is also a hypothetical, and also hard to imagine. But it is much more likely.
People who are terminally ill, or older people who know that they are nearing the end of their lives are acutely aware that their time is short, and that life is not something to take for granted. Others who are engaged in very dangerous activities where the possibility of death is all around them (soldiers in combat, extreme sports enthusiasts, first responders, etc) also know about living with the possibility of imminent death. I have at times in my life been one of these. But most of rest of us, myself included (these days) live as though there will always be plenty of time.
We treat time like money. When we think we have plenty of it, we are more apt to spend it foolishly.
Wise men suggest that we live with our own death every day.
- St Augustine said,..”Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”
- The Dalai Lama tells us “It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained”
- Nietzsche had the famous phrase “Amor Fati” – love your fate, for it is indeed your life.
- Marcus Aurelius “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.”
- The movie Troy includes that great quote about the gods envying us, “because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
It is indeed possible to love life but to not be too attached to it – and to willingly accept and recognize the reality of our own death and to invite that insight to enhance the life we live.
So what’s the good news…of being aware that we have but limited time? Each of these should be a choice – and is in part dependent on having the energy to hold on to each of these perspectives:
- Each moment becomes valuable. We will spend less time simply running around unconcisously just doing things, and spend more time, noticing what we’re dong, and appreciating the opportunity.
- We savor being alive….knowing that this is a gift. We will not let the unpleasantness, disappointments, physical or other limitations and disabilities define us, but we look for and focus on humor, joy, beauty, and the love that is available.
- Life’s priorities become clear. When we have lots to do, and limited time to do it, we focus on what’s most important. A lot of what we worry about and spend time on can wait, or isn’t that important to begin with. Those who know they have limited time, realize that.
- Opportunity to tie up loose ends. We will leave behind friends, unfinished projects, loved ones and others who will pick up and carry on where we have left off in our lives. We will want to make adjusting to our absence as easy for them as possible. We also have those things we have left unsaid, that we always meant to say. We leave a better legacy by tying up key loose ends.
- Mortality Awareness helps give our life meaning. When we are constantly aware of our mortality, it begs the question, “what’s the point?” That’s when we have to choose: Whether we believe in a Supreme Being, or are simply challenged by Viktor Frankl’s question “What does life demand of us?” it is our choice to give meaning to the time we have left.
I recently watched my father die, and have been with others who are sick and at the end of their lives, and I realized that to realize the “up-sides” of mortality awareness requires a mental energy that is often difficult for very ill people to muster. Energy management, however much or little energy we have, is a key to this process.
If we wait until we are struck with illness, old age, and low vitality, before we begin dealing with our own mortality, it is a bit late to make it a positive in our lives. I will argue that we best face our mortality when it seems farthest off – when we are (relatively) young and have the energy and cognitive powers to recognize and accept that death in fact, can and should give meaning and power to our lives.
In John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the main character has a very clear vision at a young age of the date of his death. He KNOWS this vision came from God! Included in that vision is a hint to how he will die. His faith in God is tied to his faith in the truth of that vision. How he lives with the knowledge of the date of his death is one of the important sub-themes of the book – all the way up until his last day. One must ask oneself, “How would I live, knowing that?”
Some would rather die suddenly and unexpectedly, like we see so many do every day in the evening news – car accidents, drownings, tornadoes and hurricanes, murders, and more. Some of those people never knew they were experiencing their last moment – others may have had a brief, final realization – that this was it.
My good friend Tim Holden was killed when he was hit by a car, while riding his bicycle to meet his daughter for coffee. (My comments on his funeral here.) The young man who hit him ran to him and held him in his arms as he died. He said that Tim died with a smile on his face. Though Tim and I had never spoken of it, I am certain he had thought a lot about the fragility of life, and was happy with the life he had lived. As that young man held him, I believe Tim knew – that this was it. Marcus Aurelius said, “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
CHALLENGES Apart from the sadness of knowing we’ll miss our loved ones and not be able accomplish or enjoy some of the things we’d hoped for in our life, there are other challenges to knowing that death is near. If we knew we had very limited time (eg 200 days,) we’d have some decisions to make. But I also think these decisions could apply to each of us now, with the uncertain number of days each of us has left.
So, what would MY immediate challenges be if I. like Owen Meany, had near certain knowledge that I had but 200 days to live?
- Do I stay with my mental and physical exercise and dietary program designed to promote a long and healthy life?
- Or should I throw it all to the wind, and eat, drink and be merry…for tomorrow (or in a few months,) I die?
- Do I tell others? Who? And how?
- How do I make my passing as easy as possible on those I love and who love me? How do I set the table to help them most after I’m gone?
- What would I do first? And then what? I’ve got just 200 days…how would I fill them?
- How do I die well?
That last point is important. I watched my father “die well” even though he was very sick. With so little energy left as the cancer was killing him, he fought to be good to those around him, to be of good cheer, and to maintain his dignity. It was hard, but he had always sought to be a positive example. The Samurai believed that one’s whole life is defined by how one dies, with which I don’t agree, but I do think it is worth considering: “What does it mean to ‘die well?’”
I question Dylan Thomas’s demand that we should “not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I do agree with his imperative to hold on to and appreciate life as long as we can, for only in life can we have love, dignity, opportunity, meaning, courage, and joy. But at some point, dying well means accepting our death, surrendering to the inevitable, letting it all go, as who-we-have-been, how-we-have-lived, and who-we-are dissolve into what came before us, and what will come after.
My uncle who lived to be 96, said, “I never wanted to live to be 96. Until I was 95.”
SO WHAT? With these thoughts in mind, what do I try to do?
- Take care of myself physically and mentally, preparing to take advantage of the rapid advances in biology and bio-hacking to live beyond my 100th birthday. But I certainly won’t count on it. Accept and be ready, when death does come – hopefully later, more likely sooner.
- Respect, but try not to fear, death. Fear of death takes energy from the joy of living.
- Continue to stretch myself to seek adventures, and new experiences that are broadly within my capabilities. Seek to live boldly, but manage risk. And keep learning.
- Follow the example of St Augustine and the Dalai Lama – meditate on “walking toward the light” regularly – daily.
- Go to funerals and memorial services of those I’ve known, and even some I haven’t – to honor them and to remind myself, that it is inevitable – later of sooner – my friends and family will gather to share memories of me.
- Ask myself regularly, “What would I do, how would I live differently if I were to learn that I have but a few months (or a few days) to live. Or, if I were to die suddenly, what will I regret most having missed doing?”
- Why aren’t I doing, or planning to do those things now?
I’ll conclude with an old Chinese saying I learned while I was in college:
He who lives every day of his life, lives a long (enough) life.
Books that have informed my thinking on this topic.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (A classic in finding meaning in suffering and the near certain prospect of death)
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (In this book, Randy Pausch’ shares how indeed he dealt with that 200 days insight.)
When Breath becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (A beautifully written book by a doctor, raging against the dying of the light, and then peacefully surrendering)
Tuesday’s with Morrie, by Mitch Albom (a short book about an older man who knowing he has little time left, shares his wisdom with one of his former students)
Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande (A very accessible personal account of a doctor’s experiences with the process of dying in aging and terminally ill patients)
The American Book of Living and Dying, Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain by Groves and Klauser (A series of moving stories about how a priest counsels and comforts those struggling with the knowledge of their coming death)
And one I haven’t read yet: Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life, by the Dalai Lama