The Exact Date Of Your Demise
Human beings are the only living creatures endowed with a full awareness of their mortality, a wound so painful that they’re driven to pull every cognitive trick in the book to deny it. As with any skill, some of us are far better at this than others, yielding a wide range of conscious reactions to the notion of personal non-being. For some, it’s almost impossible—literally impossible—to believe that one day they will entirely cease to exist, that their particular personhood will never recur. Others, in contrast, live in perpetual and active fear that any day might be their last, their ability to live ruined by their certain knowledge that they will one day die. Even if they have religious views, those beliefs often aren’t strong enough to beat back the instinctual fear that accompanies rumination on their own mortality.
I’ve vacillated between these two extremes myself. Like most people, I had no emotional belief in my mortality for most of my life—until I was forced to confront it directly (as I wrote about in a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death) and for a time entirely lost my ability to deny my death would happen. Yet even then my fear of death would rise up to overwhelm me only in response to a trigger, in the moments I felt ill in some way: an unexplained pain here, an intense bout of nausea or dizziness there; in other words, when some symptom drew my attention to the possibility that something might be seriously wrong and gave rise to an exaggerated sense that my life might be in danger. But even during that period, when I was feeling physically well, my thoughts—and therefore my worry—about death retreated like a tortoise’s head into its shell, my entire being cowering and refusing even to look at the possibility I might cease to be.
So powerful is our connection to life, to ourselves, to our concept of our “self,” that when it feels directly threatened we can do nothing else but think about how to defend it. Yet because it can’t be defended, of course, against death, in the end we can only ruminate about it—or learn to ignore it.
Irvin Yalom in his excellent book Staring at the Sun argues for the possibility of a third alternative: his central thesis is that though death itself may destroy us physically, the idea of death may save us. That is, an acute awareness of our mortality may function to help us live in such a way that makes us happy, may help us avoid wasting time on pursuits for which we’re not well-suited, or in which we have no real interest but in which we engage out of a sense of obligation or guilt; may help us focus on those things that matter to the wise: relationships rather than money and helping others rather than pursuing fame.
He has a good point. Many people who’ve had close encounters with death but escaped its sting have returned from the edge of that cliff changed, with a new set of values and behaviors that genuinely seem to make them—and those around them—happier and more fulfilled. But it’s a tricky balancing act. Others have been thrust toward the same precipice, stared down over it, and managed to back away, but have come away with terrible scars: PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Numerous studies have attempted to figure out what internal characteristics might determine, or at least influence, which direction a person will go after such encounters. Optimists in general fare better than pessimists, but for now that’s about all science has to say, other than the stories we tell ourselves about what happens after death clearly influence our reactions to death a great deal, depending on how thoroughly we believe them. Because no scientifically reproducible proof confirming the truth of any story any of us has ever told ourselves about the afterlife (even the commonly believed ones) has yet been put forth, the degree to which we believe such “after death stories” varies tremendously. One of those stories is certainly true, however: either we (whatever “we” may actually be) continue in some form, or we don’t. But in the absence of proof of life after death, any genuine belief we may have in it owes its allegiance far more to our desire for it to be true than to any objective measure of truth.
All of which has recently led me to wonder if the balance we require in order to live well under the shadow of death would be helped or hindered by our knowing the exact date and time we’re going to die. Even as I write these words, the notion that I’m going to die myself has faded back into intellectual understanding only, from a full three dimensions into at most two (no doubt because I currently feel well—if an unexplained symptom suddenly appeared, I strongly suspect I’d be thrust immediately back into great anxiety), so my ability to imagine how I might react to such knowledge will remain a theoretical, intellectual exercise only (given also, of course, that no such knowledge is possible).
But what I imagine is this: psychologically, we put off thinking about the events of the future quite well. So knowing my death would occur on January 7, 2047, for example, might not instill me with fear (given that such a date feels quite far off), but its concreteness might very well “save” me as Yalom proposes (encouraging me to live as I feel I should, true to myself, whatever that may mean). On the other hand, were I to learn my death is coming on September 3, 2014—well, that feels more like a diagnosis of cancer, like a death sentence. That knowledge, I think, I’d do better without.
Then again, I’m not certain about that either. Some patients of mine who’ve been handed real death sentences—not knowing the exact date they would die but knowing it wouldn’t likely be far beyond six to twelve months—have grappled with this knowledge and somehow emerged at a place of acceptance. On the other hand, such people are the rare exception.
As long as I’m speculating along impossible lines, I wonder if the best of all possible worlds would be this: to gain certain knowledge—certain belief—of the exact day of our demise as long as it lay sufficiently far away enough in the future to motivate us to live wisely and well and true to ourselves, and the closer we came to the date, the less well we’d remember it at all, until not only the knowledge of it but even the memory of ever having known it faded completely away from our awareness just before the point at which knowing it would cause our reaction to shift from living more happily to living more miserably.
The value of these musings isn’t, of course, that any of this is possible, but that imagining how we might react to knowing the exact date we’re destined to die might help us unmask how we really feel about death, whether it’s as we think we feel, or something different.
It’s worth knowing, I think. Motivations and feelings that remain unconscious hide from our best judgments about them. Much pathology results from thoughts and feelings not thoroughly understood on a conscious level, and death looms large as an issue for everyone. It seems to me much might be gained not so much from thinking about death itself but from examining our reactions to it, from setting aside what we presume we feel about it and trying to design thought experiments like the one in this post that provoke reactions that then shed light on the truth about how we actually do.
Next Week: I’ve Achieved My Greatest Dream…Now What?
Great topic. Tied up with primal fear, religious indoctrination, existential beliefs, and psychology.
It’s a topic almost too large to tackle.
But I have read something that seems in line with your thinking. Not about an exact date, but an expected date. Perhaps you’ve read it too.
But I think it is worth another read—it’s about a middle-aged man and a thousand marbles:
All the best,
Alex, this is a bottomless subject. Let me contribute to the discussion with a masterpiece of a poem written by William Blake.
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
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In the seventies, when I was just beginning my psychological training, I read a book called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. The message I took from it (to simplify) was that we cannot really live until we come to grips with the fact that this life can be taken away from us. I think your post reflects that, as does the charming story in Steven’s link. To be in the moment, to truly feel something, we have to hold it as a precious thing, not to be wasted. Of course, we cannot live with that kind of focus at all times, but it does remind me of the practice of mindfullness—to treasure what we have, instead of ruminating as to what we don’t. There is a certain amount of mourning that needs to happen for that kind of awareness. Another paradox of life, I guess.
I think you are also assuming you will be told far enough ahead that some of the fear will be something you think you can handle. More than several people died in a fiery wreck this afternoon in my community and if you told them yesterday when they were going to die, even if not how, that would strike me as being cruel or unfair. Or is dying ever fair? For me LIFE has been fair and I must admit I am getting down to a small number of marbles.
How about those of us who live with a percentage every day? I have a 35% chance of dying each and every day due to a heart condition. It really makes me think about what I want to do with my time. Thankfully I’m an optimist, so I’m putting my money on the happier 65% chance of living.
A timely, perhaps even karmic, post for me—as I’m going in for surgery tomorrow. Although the surgery is minor, it will be only the third time I’ll have been under a general anesthesia. So, naturally, in the wee hours last night, my thoughts turned to my personal mortality, knowing that today could be my last full day alive. You’d think I’d have the good sense to take the day off from work. But here I am, on the job—an optimist for a change. Or maybe a fool.
But sooner or later. . . . Oh well. C’est la vie.
I think I fear living too long much more than I fear dying. Being old and feeble, living with the pains of extreme old age, or worse, dementia, scare me much more. I worry I will outlive my retirement funds. I would love to know my expiration date as I could plan so much better.
Of course, I say this on a day in my early-50’s, quite healthy (to my knowledge that is….) with death still an abstract.
I only know that Death is the Destination. And that Life is the Journey. And that as Daniel Defoe said, “hic jacet” is the finishing line for human existence and that human glory is unstable unless it is permeated by benevolence. Reactions to the your impermanence, whether in remote future or imminent, vary widely, and can be vividly seen in the reactions of persons being lead to the gallows.
I’m glad Alex wrote this, but it strikes me none are dealing with Franklin’s “death and taxes” certitude:
Alex says, “As long as I’m speculating along impossible lines” (re: actual dates).
Lil says, “this life CAN be taken away from us.”
David talks of the “fairness” of his lif …
It is not “impossible”—death is 100% certain! This life WILL be “taken from us,” and no one said it would be fair. What is “fair,” anyway? That presumes an impartial judge, and that is a human overlay onto a disinterested universe.
The Rx is simple, and even a hokey country song got it right: “Live as though you’re dying.” ‘Cause you are. But life is beautiful.
Life is abundant and cheap—every life—everything that takes birth is dying from that day on. Life begins, happens and ends and is forgotten without making any difference to any other life thereafter. We all want to feel we are precious we really are not.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over
Thought I’d something more to say.
Pink Floyd’s Time, from Dark Side of the Moon
@Rich, I would disagree with you. Your comment sounds either pessimistic or depressed. We *are* all precious; what is truly sad is that—for whatever reason—some people do not have an inherent awareness of their preciousness, or have not been valued for it. But the preciousness, the value, is still there.
And many lives make an ongoing difference long after the death of that individual person—Jonas Salk, to pick one! In reality, the examples are too numerous to mention! (For instance, if it were not for the inventor(s) of the typewriter, the computer, and the Internet, I would not be able to read or respond to this topic!)
On a Buddhist retreat many years ago, one of the teachers told us of a practice she’d undertaken where, when she took leave of someone, she did so with the thought, “Goodbye forever.” Ever since then, when my husband goes out of town, as we hug goodbye, I say to myself, “Goodbye forever.” I always then pull him in just a little closer.
On the one hand, this practice has made me acutely aware that one day, we’ll be separated forever and that scares me (we’ve been together over 45 years). On the other hand, saying that little phrase, “Goodbye forever,” is incredibly comforting, as if I’ve completed our relationship (if that makes sense).
Very interesting point. I think everyday of those who have died, most about my dad, my sister, mom, childhood friend, local good friend and when I hear about the recent deaths of another friend’s mother and someone’s brother. When I was 13, my dad announced, apparently to the grass in our backyard (that’s what he was looking at), that he believed in reincarnation. It seemed silly to me at the time. The idea “from this day forward” is helpful.
Like Taryn, I am more worried about living too long and being feeble, in pain, and broke. That concerns me much more than death itself at this point. And even more than that, I worry that my fears of uncertainty are keeping me from following my dreams, and that I may die sooner than I expect, dreams still unfulfilled.
Rich is correct in that we impart some sort of special nature to ourselves, but we are no more or less significant than the lilies in the field, and all meet the same fate. Our value? If you boiled us down, a few dollars in chemicals, perhaps. To eradicate us? The price of an AK round, well under a dollar.
Our only meaning is what we choose to make of it. Very liberating and terrifying. Best I can figure out, Thoreau had it right: It’s not enough to be good; be good for something. You may construct something that outlives you, like the vaccine or computer Sarah mentions, but you qua you will not hurtle into the future in the person of your children, etc.
I have considered this question in the past and have concluded that I would love to know my date of death—if not the exact date then at least a ballpark year. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 when I was 28, and I have found one of the biggest challenges to be striking the right balance between living now and planning for the (uncertain) future.
In particular, how to decide about children and about leaving a job that is not a good fit? The job provides good pay, which has allowed me to pursue several attempts at surrogacy and, if I stayed, would provide the funds to pursue adoption. But is it even responsible to have children when my risk of recurrence is 25-30%? Is it responsible to leave a good job to pursue something undefined when it would jeopardize our ability to effectively handle a recurrence or a possible disability (I have lupus too)?
Knowing when I would die would make these decisions immeasurably easier and would remove some of the guilt I feel from taking these risks. If I’m not going to make it to 40, I won’t have kids, but I also won’t keep showing up at work everyday. I’ll spend much more time as a Hospice volunteer—something I added in response to the cancer experience because I find it so fulfilling to sit with others as they face their own mortality.
I know everyone struggles with these short and long-term goals, but I think the issues are harder when, after confronting your own mortality and stepping back from the precipice, you’re left with the distinct realization that you may get swept back over the cliff at any point. But you may not. Balance between these extremes has been hard for me to find.
Thank you for your posts, Alex. I stumbled across your site and have been thoroughly enjoying reading your always thought-provoking posts.
Yes, it is the HUMAN in us that makes us aware of our mortality; it is the ANIMAL in us that makes this awareness unbearable.
If you were about to die in ten minutes, with the knowledge your child would be tortured by evil trolls forever, it would be a horrible ten minutes.
If you were to die in ten minutes, with the knowledge your child would be safe and find happiness in this world, the ten minutes would be perhaps conflicted and bittersweet, but colored quite differently than in scenario one.
In facing down these proverbial “ten minutes,” i.e., the remainder of anyone’s life, we find a palliative in caring about things outside of ourselves, and feeling secure in their, or its, well-being. A perfect selfishness, the animal or natal selfishness, is what makes death unbearable.
It is true, in deep dimensional focus, removed from reality of the moment, one can manifest one’s time of peace from what we know as the breath of a human’s life. With positive disposition a beautiful vision will manifest. I have done so after experiencing great loss in the death of my father, (4.5 years ago) and answering the question of what I wanted in my life. I keep this vision within the depths of my soul and find great peace in knowing my vision of my death and live my life in peace, yet suffer at times at the imperfection of our world.