It was my birthday last week.
I turned 56. That means I have another 19 years left on this planet.
No, I don’t have a crystal ball predicting when I’ll die. But I have been very much taken with the end-oflife prescription laid out by medical ethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, who wrote in a much-cited 2014 essay about why 75 years is long enough for him.
Emmanuel’s reasoning goes like this: Medicine may have prolonged life expectancy, but not quality of life. Once we hit 75 (on average), we start to slow down. We get sick more often. We suffer through chemotherapy and broken bones. Dementia becomes increasingly common.
Emanuel wants to go before he deteriorates both mentally and physically.
“I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either,” he vows in his Atlantic magazine article. By age 75, “I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. I will have... made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.”
I haven’t decided if I will adopt Emmanuel’s recommendations for no more cancer screenings and no more cardiac stress tests after age 75, but the idea of an “end date” for life is something worth considering.
It is at once terrifying and oddly comforting.
Terrifying because in the last year and a half, a litany of new pains and aches and anatomical malfunctions that I didn’t have in my first 55 years have set in. They aren’t enough to do me in (at least that’s what my doctor says), but they do add a daily discomfort that, if I let my mind go wild, I can envision increasing in intensity, allowing me to more easily imagine what I’ve always been so afraid of.
I should know better than to dwell in an imagined future. My mindfulness practice has taught me that.
Author Eckhart Tolle summarizes the sentiment in his book The Power of Now.
“The future does not exist,” he says, “because nobody has ever experienced it. You can only ever experience a present moment.”
Stumbling on Happiness author, the social psychologist Dan Gilbert, disagrees.
While “the past and the future are both real,” he explains on the TED Radio Hour, “the present is a psychological illusion.”
Gilbert relates it to going to the beach.
“You see water and you see sand, and it looks like there’s a line between them, but that line is not a third thing. There’s only water, and there’s only sand. Similarly, all moments in time are either in the past or in the future.”
Gilbert’s thought experiment doesn’t negate the benefits of a life lived more mindfully. But it does give some credence to those of us who can’t help keeping one foot forever in the future.
And that can, paradoxically, enhance the present moment.
If I embrace the possibility that I might only have 19 years left, I am forced to ask myself how I will make that time meaningful.
I’m currently writing a book. It will have taken me just over three years from start to finish. How many more books do I have in me before my 19 (hopefully productive) years are up? I don’t have time to waste on writing something frivolous.
I love to travel. But I won’t be able to see the whole world in 19 years. So I’d better prioritize where to spend my time and money. Does Cambodia call more than Costa Rica? Is it ever worth going back to someplace I’ve already been?
Do I even want to travel? Or is the best allocation of my non-working time spent with family and friends closer to home?
I should certainly complain less. After all, what could be a worse use of time? That’s easier said than done for a lifelong kvetcher like me. Physical distress can take over even the most optimistic affirmations and the depression that lingers after illness is not always in our control.
I’ll have to accept that too.
Philosophers and fantasy writers have long been fascinated by the question of whether, if you could know the date of your death, would you want to? The exact date – no, I don’t think so. But I’m open to some general parameters.
My kids hate it when I talk this way.
“You’re going to live forever,” one said to me when I was feeling particularly bleak. “You have to – you’re my Abba!”
My meditation teacher Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels once shared the story of how he used to suffer from overwhelming anxiety. His teacher Amita Schmidt posed a provocative question.
“If you were like this for the rest of your life, could you be OK?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied. Because, really, what’s the alternative? When you’re young, you’re convinced that you’re invincible. You’ll do everything, visit everywhere; there’s no need to make lists.
I’d like to think of myself as still young. I don’t know a lot of people my age seriously contemplating their mortality, especially when there’s nothing life-threatening on the horizon. And of course no one can ever know how long he or she will really live. A terrorist attack, a traffic accident, a natural disaster or a sudden tumor could come at any time.
Still, my body’s diffident if infuriating rebellion has given me an unexpected opportunity. I will do my best to be OK with it, too.
The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at www.bluminteractivemedia.com.