Next month, it will be 467.
How do I know? I consulted one of the many life expectancy calculators available on the Internet. The MSN calculator I used takes into account personal behavior, family and personal health, lifestyles (including alcohol and cigarette use), diet and exercise and driving habits. Based on my lifestyle habits, I have just determined that I’m scheduled to die at age 89, 39 years from now.
I have no grounds to complain about the small-seeming number of months I have yet to live. I’m certainly not looking for pity. Compared to many other people, I’m doing well. People in the Stone Age (ca. 8000 BC) lived only about 20 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average person lived only until my current age, 50. In African countries hit hard by AIDS, the average person lives a total of only 30 years, significantly less than my remaining life expectancy at age 50. This is a phenomenal and disturbing statistic: at age 50, I am expected to live longer than a child born today in Zambia.
The reason I wrote this post, though, is that calculating my remaining life expectancy is much more than mathematics. I’ll try to explain. Perhaps this experiment won’t have the same effect on you, but it might.
First of all, why calculate my remaining time in months rather than the years? Because as an adult, the month turns out to be the most basic unit of time. Years move too slowly. They don’t “tick.” Days and weeks, on the other hand, are far too fleeting; work weeks now speed by like a single long day interrupted by five naps. Time didn’t rocket by this way when I was a child. Back then, a summer day seemed endless. Summer vacations used to be lifetimes during which I could whittle a stick under a shade tree and daydream endlessly without an ounce of urgency or guilt. As an adult, though, things have sped up logarithmically. Clocks now remind me that the passage of an hour is actually the loss of an hour. As an adult, no matter how good my health is, I’m cognizant that I am always a day closer to my own death today than I was yesterday.
Whether my mind will still actually work throughout my life expectancy is a huge asterisk. Ten percent of the nation’s 4.5 million Alzheimer’s patients — an estimated 450,000 people — are now younger than 65. http://www.alz.org/ At one extreme, very few people will have the mental capacity of Ernst Mayr, who published What Evolution Is (2002) when he was 98 years old. Another necessary asterisk is whether my particular lifespan will actually fall within my calculated life expectancy. The life expectancy calculator calculates only an average. I might die tomorrow, for instance, if an SUV crashes into my bicycle.
Oh, there is also the possibility that I could make actually make it to age 100 (there are 55,000 such “centenarians” in the U.S. these days). On the other hand, I know I won’t last nearly as long as Methuselah, the oldest known living organism, a 4700-year-old bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. [I know that it is a stretch to mention this wondrous tree in this post, but it is such a survivor! It displayed enough moxie to survive “Noah’s” flood . . . ].
We are so ambivalent about our own inevitably-approaching deaths! This topic, our own deaths, is a much more difficult topic than discussing the deaths of others or death in general. Thinking about one’s own death can be truly horrifying. Learning any details such as the number of additional months one has left to live is potentially devastating. What other details can horrify us? The basics: the lack of any heartbeat, the shutdown of any consciousness and the body’s putrid decay into dirt. It is downright terrifying to think of such details.
To intellectually acknowledge that we are mortal is surreal. What is terrifyingly surreal is the intense energy spent by the billions of people walking the planet who carefully avoid pondering that there is no escape from dying. Perhaps it is as Freud wrote, that it is impossible for to imagine our own deaths. Because I have young children, it is especially eerie to realize that it is likely that I will no longer be alive at a time when my children are living on.
The fact that we will all be dead in the next 150 years has got to be among the most fascinating of topics. Most people, however, struggle to keep from acknowledging their own inevitable deaths. They struggle to even articulate the general concept of death. They mumble and stutter about people “passing away,” “moving on” or being “gone.” They even struggle to come up with euphemisms to express that their pets died. Where’s Fido? I have heard several adults with straight faces say: “In Doggie Heaven.” Many people nervously joke about the grim reaper and most people develop detailed stories regarding afterlives for which there is no objective credible evidence.
Though the thought of our own deaths is indeed terrifying, we are also constantly tempted tocontemplate our own deaths. It’s just too important to not acknowledge, orthogonally if not directly. After all, we do have life insurance to consider and there are those obituaries we keep seeing in the paper and we keep hearing about acquaintances taking their last breaths in hospitals. We can’t get away from it, but can’t bear to think seriously about it.
Some of us can tolerate more of this ghoulish contemplation than others. Even when someone coughs out an acknowledgment that we are all getting closer to their personal deaths, most of us are too squeamish to know how to continue such a discussion. We all nod whenever we hear of someone else’s death—it’s usually that syllogistic recognition nod: all men are mortal and that guy and I are both people, ergo . . . But the inevitability of our deaths is truly a dead end topic. When that dreaded topic comes up, we’ve are all well-rehearsed to speak in platitudes, then to avert our eyes and speak of happier things.
Perhaps you’re wondering, then, why I would make my effort to periodically calculate my life expectancy. And why am I writing this dreadful post? My point is not to give readers an existential kick in the stomach. I use the life expectancy calculator because it causes me to learn something valuable when I note my own reaction to the resulting number. Noting my personal reaction to my dwindling number of months on Earth serves as my existential thermometer. My reaction to that number tells me something important about my current attitude toward life.
As I see it, there are two basic paths available to humans: A) Nihilism and B) Embracing Life. If I find that the information the Life Expectancy calculator gives me is “only a number,” I am in danger of being on Path A (nihilism). If the calculator causes me to experience a strong visceral reaction, there is a good chance that I am on Path B (embracing life). We spend a lot of money diagnosing our cars, our retirement plan and our career options. Isn’t it worth the effort, once in a while, to see whether we are in good existential health? Here’s how I see the two paths:
Path A: Nihilism
Nihilism holds that human existence lacks “objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism It logically follows that those who reject life aren’t likely to take care of their bodies, their lives, their communities or their planet. To nihilists, it doesn’t matter whether one has 300 months remaining or 150. To nihilists, life has a numbing sameness to it. To individual nihilists, their time remaining in this (meaningless) existence is irrelevant.
Nihilism comes in several forms.
Religious nihilists. Many of the people who can’t bear the thought of dying conjure up make-believe worlds. This includes most fundamentalists, who are really nihilists. Their fear of death is so acute that they deny the importance of their bodies and they deny the importance of their own planet. For them, the Earth is a big disposable diaper—something designed to be shat upon as they work their way toward heaven. Important note: I am not claiming that all believers are nihilists. Many religious believers are definitely not nihilists.
Secular nihilists. These are people who lack any meaningful anchor points in their world. They impulsively live in the short term without regard to higher principles, moral or otherwise. Many religious leaders (especially fundamentalists) characterize all non-believers as morally unanchored like this and they therefore characterize all non-believers as incapable of living moral lives. This is a grossly unfair characterization, as I’ve discussed previously. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=42
Back Door Nihilists. These are people who, though they might “try” to find meaning in life, don’t have the patience or discipline to pull it off. Frantic, desperate and distracted, they squeeze all of the life out of their lives by looking outward rather than inward. They settle for the faux meaning offered by consumerist and materialist commercial offerings. When in doubt, they give homage to pop culture, amusements and commercial distractions. They need constant distraction. For them, heaven is a big shopping mall and hell would be having to spend time alone–without mass media.
Path B: Embracing Life
One embraces life means by accepting the challenges of one’s natural human animal existence and acknowledging that one’s remaining breaths are treasures. The key to doing this is to acknowledge one’s own mortality in a straightforward non-intellectualized way. Here it is in a nutshell: human death to life-embracers is a lot like the death of ants, worms or squirrels. There is only one kind of death to life embracers: shelf life—the amount of time before the corpse starts stinking.
Those who embrace life accept that the cycle of life includes the deaths of individuals but the continued existence of populations and societies. They realize that the failure to accept death cheapens life because it pretends that life is an inexhaustible resource. Only by truly and graphically accepting death, then, can people truly embrace life. By embracing life, people thereby acknowledge that human animals are cousins of all of those other mortal things, all of the plants and animals. People who embrace life therefore naturally feel at peace with the cycles of life and death that affect all living things, human and otherwise.
For curious humans who go where evidence takes them, embracing life recognizes that evolution has built in the cycle of life and death to give populations a chance to adapt through reproduction, nature’s way of spinning off variations that have a chance of carrying the “baton.” Recognizing not only the fact of death, but also the necessity of death puts human animals squarely on the evolutionary tree and presents a real reason for death. Death is thus not senseless concept to those who embrace life. Death only seems senseless to those with parochial and egocentric attitudes that elevate humans into artificial privileged positions that necessarily disparage non-human organisms.
Because embracing life intrinsically recognizes the ontological significance of the group over the individual, it shouts to us that we have obligations to others in our generation and those in generations to follow. In short, we have an inherent natural duty to not crap up the planet. Embracing life reminds us that we have each been given a great opportunity to be here and that, rather than trashing our world, we have the power and responsibility to help make our world a better place to live. It is an obligation to be empathetic.
Embracing life reminds us to be self-critical of our desires and ambitions. Embracing life encourages us to live the sorts of lives that can be studied and admired, much like works of art.
How does a stark glimpse at my shrinking number of months affect me? Whenever I calculate my remaining life in terms of that all-too-comprehensible all-too-shrinking number of months, it makes vivid that line between my life and my death. I don’t make this calculation constantly, only periodically. I don’t make it to antagonize myself, but to spur myself on. There’s no need, for instance, to wear backwards running watch set to my life expectancy. That would drive me to distraction.
Periodically making myself aware of my remaining time is, as I have suggested, an existential thermometer. If someone tells you that you only have X months to live (whether it be a doctor or a life expectancy calculator that tells you this) and it doesn’t give you a severe jolt, perhaps you have stopped living. Yes, it is quite possible for a person with a beating heart to have stopped living. That is what I suggested by sketching out several versions of nihilism.
Perhaps the life expectancy calculator challenges me in the same way that Frederick Nietzsche challenged us. He asked the important question of whether one has retained the energy and spirit of a child: “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’” (Thus spoke Zarathustra, part I, Walter Kaufmann transl.)
To really know the meaning of your remaining time on earth, you must first know yourself. To move forward, you must say a deeply resonating yes.