Andrew Siegel, MD Blog #114
The following article appeared in the August 1 New York Times and was written by Steven Petrow. I found it to be a very sobering analysis of a subject that we just don’t like to think or talk about, and it very much reminded me of a post I did a few months ago, which is re-posted at the conclusion of the article.
“With every new silver hair sprouting from my scalp, I can’t help but think of the shortening arc ahead of me. Now in my mid-50s, for the first time I’m no longer looking up, over and beyond. Rather, my trajectory points downward at the approaching horizon. In this frame of mind, I recently found myself at DeathClock.com, the “Internet’s friendly” — if not scientific — “reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.” After I completed the short questionnaire, the Death Clock’s algorithm quickly did the math, concluding: “Your personal day of death is Wednesday, April 23, 2031.”
That’s a scant 18 years — although the clock gave it to me “in seconds left to live.” At the time, it was 563,037,386 … and counting down.
Old enough not to believe everything I read on the Web, I queried my doctor about my expected longevity. He quickly e-mailed back: “All things being equal, I believe your estimated survival time would be around 72 to 75. Good luck.”
Good luck? I spent a few moments processing the possible meanings behind “good luck” (none of them particularly appealing), realizing my good doctor had pretty much corroborated the Death Clock’s calculation, then sat there feeling sorry for myself, imagining the hourglass emptying. Then, not allowing myself to wallow one grain of sand longer, I decided to quit my day job.
Yes, just like that. Call me crazy. I worked as an editor and, ironically, my soon-to-be-former boss had once given me a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” suggesting I needed to act more on impulse than rationality. I had previously underlined this particular section: “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”
I’d long been toying with — even planning for — the day I’d quit. But so many fears had stood in my way, starting with the most basic: dollars and cents. Yes, my partner and I had downsized. Yes, I’d been squirreling away a rainy-day fund. And yes — and most significantly — I’d been talking regularly with my therapist not just about quitting, but about how to live a truly meaningful life. I knew it wasn’t sleeping my way through the workdays to get to the weekend.
Now a new fear – the ticktock of the clock — squashed the pecuniary one, and the decision to leave my job seemed like a Gladwell no-brainer.
Anyway, my plan wasn’t to spend the rest of my life traveling the world. First of all, that rainy-day fund isn’t that big. And as short as 18 years sounds, that’s a heck of a lot of days and weeks (and yes, seconds) not to fritter away. Rather, my plan was to do what I’d been doing in bits and pieces, in between jobs, on vacations, before the work day and after hours: Be a full-time writer.
Fortunately, I had some role models in making this leap. My friend Peter, 53, a documentarian, had left his full-time job 18 months earlier to take what he then called a sabbatical to write a play. He explained to me: “I realized it was a myth to think there would be a time when I don’t have any financial worries. If not now, when?” He then added that his 52-year-old best friend who died of a malignant brain tumor “was a very real accelerator of my decision.”
Similarly, my friend Tom, 56, told me over coffee he’d come to the realization, “I only have so many years left.” A photographer and writer, he’d recently stepped down from a university directorship after watching two of his closest friends die, “guys that I thought were bulletproof,” he explained. “I want to quit talking about doing my own work – and do my own work.”
The week after getting my doctor’s “good luck” e-mail, I gave notice. I told a good story but what I didn’t say was this: “I’ve got only one life to live, and if I don’t do it now, when?”
I couldn’t sleep the next few nights, the loud echoes of my naysayers circling through my head. But over the weeks that followed, things began to shift. I started to get new assignments and finished up a book proposal. I’d get up at 5 a.m. as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. I felt a new sense of ownership, joy and meaning to my days. This wasn’t my work, it was my life. And I didn’t just like it – I loved it.
Of course, I know I won’t spend the rest of my days in this state of euphoria. I will struggle with blank pages and intermittent paychecks. But I will appreciate each day more. I understand now what my friend Tom was telling me when he sent me a short passage from Wendell Berry’s novel “Jayber Crow,” in which the namesake main character reflects on the passage of time. “Back at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory … And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”
I know too well the feeling that my life is now more memory than future. As I finish these pages, I see that my clock is down two million seconds from when I started. Call me crazy, but I have to say I love the ticktock of the Death Clock. Without it, I might not be living.”
I am now just a few short years away from 60 (how is that possible?), inciting me to wax philosophical about the aging process. The numbers are concrete and I view and interpret them through a surreal prism of disbelief and astonishment, still appearing reasonably young and internally feeling no different than 20 or 25 or 30. Factually, the average life expectancy for a male in the USA is 75.5 years. So the truth of the matter is that if I am fortunate enough to achieve average longevity, I have already lived 75% of my life. And generally speaking, the last 25% of one’s life are not the best years in terms of one’s health, as I can attest to as a physician.
Somehow and some way, humans are imbued with a powerful mechanism of denial that allows us to isolate realities such as these and store them on some imaginary shelf, bottled in some imaginary can to be sequestered and quarantined and not to be contended with. If we did not have this ability, the psychic pain would be unbearable and thanks to this artifice, we manage to endure emotional burdens. This allows me to proceed under the delusion that I am still “young” and have my whole life in front of me and I remain hopefully optimistic about what the future will bring, and my optimism is self-fulfilling.
I completed my fellowship at UCLA and continue to receive mailings and updates from this superb medical institution. I just received their publication “Vital Signs,” which has a section for my demographic advertising their “Fifty Plus” program, which offers educational lectures, a walking program, information on community and health resources, membership amenities, a free community flu shot clinic, and special events. In the Spring 2013 edition, the following classes were offered: Senior
Scholars; Memory Training Course; Brain Boot Camp; Vision Problems in Older Adults; Health Maintenance and Disease Prevention; Tai Chi Workshop; Introduction to Dementia; Senior Health Fair; Vaginal and Bladder Mesh Surgery; and Dizziness. Oy Veh…woe is me!
The aging process is insidious. The years creep by, seemingly slowly at first; then, ever so gradually, the wheel of time starts to crank faster and faster with greater and greater momentum, until the weeks and months roll past at a dizzying and frightening warp speed. Before you know it, you are at the summit of the mountain, looking down at the back face or, for you golfers out there, you’re on the back nine.
The older one gets, the faster one’s perception of the passage of time. When I was a child, a single summer seemed to represent an eternity; now, in midlife, the summers blur by at a rate that challenges my sanity. Family events that are initially scheduled on the calendar for a few years from now seem to approach at an uncomfortably rapid pace and, suddenly, are here. Part of this may be explained on a strictly mathematical basis—for a five-year-old, one year represents 20% of his or her life, whereas for a 50-year-old, it represents a mere 2%. Another factor in the perception of time racing faster and faster is our pursuit of a career—being productive and busy does not necessarily lend itself to the awareness of time: time consciousness, if you will. Many of us are ever increasingly focused on our day-to-day activities, too caught up in maintaining our routines to take notice of the hours, weeks, and years speeding by.
The lightness of being is an additional factor contributing to the perception of the rapid passage of time—we float around the planet consumed by a variety of roles that we play, always in a hurry, constantly on the move, existing without giving a great deal of thought to actual existence—as a result, existence seems to lose its substance, weight, meaning, and time framework. We are so consumed by our numerous mundane daily destinations, working, traveling, living in our oftentimes insular circles, that we are remiss in attending to the real journey, the true process, life in its entirety. It is a Zen precept that life is to be found in the present moment, and not the future. Lack of focus on the here and now with too much attention to the next moment can be a factor in the perception of time passing at warp speed.
The bottom line is that the future is approaching in a fast and furious fashion and most of us hopefully desire to maximize our time—irrefutably one of our most precious commodities—that we spend occupying space on our planet. And we really do have precious little time here—to paraphrase Hart Crane: “Our earthly transit is a brief wink between eternity and eternity.” To quote Ben Stein, “Time is overwhelming, omnipotent, and ubiquitous in its power…it may never be conquered or defeated.”
As my former golf instructor-cum-philosopher Hank related to me, every opportunity we have to swing a golf club at a ball is a unique moment in space and time—a different day, a different course, a different ball, a different lie, a different mood, a different weather forecast—a moment that will happen once and only once and then will be gone forever. So, since you have one and only one chance at making the most of this unique slice (pardon the pun) of eternity, why not give it your all
and make it count to the best of your abilities. This concept is a useful metaphor when extended to life in general.
So what is one to do in the face of this seemingly harsh reality? The answer is to appreciate every moment, put your best effort into every endeavor, and relish the journey because the inevitable destination for ALL of us is exactly the same. This is essentially an expansion of Tony Horton’s “BRING IT” concept (regarding exercise) to life overall.
“We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those for reality. We get so caught up in this endless thought-stream that reality flies by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed in activity, caught up in an eternal pursuit of pleasure and gratification and eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness. We spend all of our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying to bury our fears, endlessly seeking security.”
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
“Life is a fatal adventure. It can only have one end.
So why not make it as far ranging and free as possible.”
Alexander Eliot (author/critic)
“We are living on borrowed time.”
Father Americo Salvi, my patient
“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
“Don’t betray time with false urgencies.”
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these—it might have been.”
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
“Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while,
you could miss it.”
“Learn as if you were to live forever. Live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
“….Time is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable—if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.”
David Foster Wallace
“The first half of life is orderly, a miracle of detailed harmonious unfolding” beginning with the embryo. What comes after our reproductive years is “more like the random crumpling of what had been neatly folded origami, or the erosion of stone. The withering of the roses in the bowl is as drunken and disorderly as their blossoming was regular and precise.”
“What surprises me most about humanity is man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity.
“Maybe it’s not metaphysics. Maybe it’s existential. I’m talking of the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than “die,’ “pass away”, the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday—’
And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people, and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make it sure we are remembered, these’ll last what—a hundred years? two hundred? – and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I am cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here.
That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.”
David Foster Wallace, from “The Pale King”
“Life is tough. It takes a lot of your time, all your weekends, and what do you get at the end of it? Death, a great reward. I think that the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live twenty years in an old-age home. You are kicked out when you are too young. You get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You go to college, you party until you’re ready for high school. You become a little kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little boy or girl, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating.
And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.”
Bottom Line: The reality is that the “end of the line” comes far too quickly. So, enjoy and protect in every way possible what you have today. Carpe Diem!
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food: www.promiscuouseating.com
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