17,872 days to go (roughly).

August 3rd, 2008

Life will go on after we’re dead and buried.

I’ll share with you one of my pet theories. Ready? Here goes:

In this society we are entirely too afraid of death, and therefore too aversive about giving it any thought.

Let me rush to say that we wouldn’t benefit from a young-Morrissey-like fascination with death — much less from suicidal tendencies or excessively morbid imaginations.

But we would benefit from a more candid understanding that, on this earth at least, we are mortal. That means our days are numbered. That means we shouldn’t waste time, but instead live richly across the days we do have.

All of us have reminders that life can be unexpectedly short. Cancer, accidents, wars — the world is full of forces personal and impersonal that can cut short our time here. We’re right to stop these forces wherever we can, and to live for as many days as we can. But however many days we have, it’s important to make them count.

I’ve been thinking about this much more lately, ever since I stumbled across the 37 Days blog and met its author, Patti Digh. The blog’s title comes from Patti’s experience caring for her stepfather, who died 37 days after he was diagnosed with cancer. Her focus is clear from the blog’s tagline: “What would you be doing today if you only had 37 days to live?” I encourage you to visit the blog, read what she has to say, and think your own thoughts about how you would live out your last few weeks on earth — if you knew that they were your last few weeks.

(By the way, I intend to review Patti’s new book for my professional blog as soon as I receive the review copy her publisher is sending me.)

Okay, so what about the very un-37-like number listed in the title of this post?

That number is one rough estimate of how many days I personally can expect to live before dying of natural causes. It’s the sum derived when I subtract my current age in days (13,198) from the average number of days (31,070) that my four grandparents lived.

I’m fortunate that all of my grandparents lived past 75, and that three of them lived past 86. Given advances in nutrition and medicine, I hope to outlive them all by a wide margin. To be honest, I hope to live — hale and alert — past 110.

There’s good news and bad news about these expectations. The good news is, heck, I’ve got lots of time. The bad news is that the illusion that we have lots of time leads leads so many of us to waste so many of our days. This is why Patti evokes such great responses when she gets people thinking about how much life they’d like to compress into their few remaining days.

17,872 days seems like a lot, until you consider that surely plenty of them will be spent doing chores, earning a living, stuck in airports, sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting in traffic. Plenty of them will feature enough headaches that no Big Work will be done. Plenty of them will, or at least could, center around the kind of dithering that it’s all too easy to embrace when we don’t value our days fully.

How many days does that leave over? How many ways could we leave a mark on the world — make an impact for the forces of good — in those days?

Maybe it’s still a large number, but it requires focus to use that number. It requires focus to make sure that the number of days spent in housekeeping or wage-earning or small-timing doesn’t turn into “all of them.”

So very quickly, it seems, a big number can turn small.

My twenties, seen in the rearview mirror, seemed to go by like a shot. The first half of my thirties, even faster. My kids are sprouting up into adolescents before my eyes. Now I’m old enough to be President (not that I’d take the job), and nearly as old as Kipling was when he won the Nobel Prize. I’ll be 40 before you know it.

Then 50.

Then 60.

Then . . . well, there are no guarantees, are there?

Whether you’ve got 17,872 days left, or 37, or three — live today, friends.


(Image by lydurs.)

11 Responses to “17,872 days to go (roughly).”

  1. marciamarcia Says:

    I had a little brother who died suddenly (his heart just gave out) the day I came home from summer camp while he was showing me he could swim a lap at the local pool. He was 5. I was 9. That happened 34 years ago, yesterday. Not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on the life I have today. Sure, I put a few too many things on my to-do list, but perhaps that’s because I’m doing more important things right now. Thank you for introducing me to Patti’s blog. I look forward to reading her book. If you haven’t read it already, you might want to check out Chasing Daylight by Gene O’Kelly. Also, don’t miss Griffin’s Story here http://marciaconner.com/blog/?p=660.

  2. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Marcia. Your own experience is harrowing, as is the family’s from Griffin’s Story. I’ve been fortunate: my parents, my wife’s parents, and all our siblings are alive and healthy. But I don’t want to take all of this for granted. I want to appreciate it genuinely, before anyone’s time is up, before tragedy ever intervenes.

    Jack LaLanne has made a business out of living hale and hearty for a very long time, but he’s on record as saying he doesn’t care how long he lives so long as he LIVES. Seems like a good motto to me.

  3. Kris Bordessa Says:

    Powerful, powerful stuff here, Tim. Living in the NOW is something I’ve been working on myself. It’s not easy to stay focused on the present at all times, but I think having the awareness is critical.

    Kris (who remembers watching Jack LaLanne do jumping jacks on TV – and joining him)

  4. Shannon Paul Says:

    Wow, people are sharing some pretty real stuff here. As someone who lost a parent as a teenager, I have given a lot of thought to the subject of impermanence.

    Historically, the nice thing about living in accordance with nature was a healthy respect for death as a natural phenomenon. This carried over for a long time in human civilization — funerals were held in the home, charnal houses were open in major thoroughfares in cities and the latin words “memento mori” (roughly translated remember death) were commonly inscribed over entranceways. It wasn’t until much later during the industrial revolution that mortality became pushed to the fringes of experience as something other than an accepted part of life.

    Remembering our own mortality, when done in a healthy way, can help add life to our days and keep things in perspective. One of my favorite things to remind myself when I’m feeling overwhelmed is that to a tiger, I am just another flavor of meat — possibly even a bad flavor of meat. This kind of thing may seem strange, but I find it helpful.

    Thanks for reminding me to live!

  5. Tim Walker Says:

    Kris & Shannon — thanks for these great comments.

    Shannon — I think your historical perspective is apt. When you talk about “living in accordance with nature,” it makes me think about something Gary Snyder has written about fallen trees in the forest — i.e. that they will contribute to the live of the forest for as many years after they die (by providing nutrients to bugs and the soil etc.) as they did while they were standing.

    In other words, death isn’t *separate* from life — it’s *part* of life. Worth remembering.

  6. Miz Liz Says:

    Tim – very moving, poignant, and timely. I called a friend this morning to wish her a belated birthday, a friend that I met when I was 20 and she, 26. This year we turned 47 and 53. It’s amazing how quickly that time goes. One of the things we discussed was her solid focus on cleaning out her mother’s house since she passed in January. This, at the expense sometime of spending time with her children or husband. Of spending time in the present. I think that sometimes it’s difficult to be present in the moment. But in a blink of an eye, that moment is gone and suddenly, it’s the next one. In this situation, death is battling life and who should she honor more? But just by thinking about it, she joined me in the present, if only, for a moment. Thanks for the beautiful post.

  7. Tim Walker Says:

    Miz Liz — I think you raise excellent points here. To some degree, we HAVE to deal with the past AND we HAVE live in the present. Both. Always. Simultaneously.

    The question is: how much of each?

  8. Zaid Says:

    So…before graduating from high school, I gave this speech to my graduating class at the baccalaureate, way back in May ’05. And the most important lesson I passed on to my colleagues was this: “ride your life till the wheels fall off.”

    I remember reading this truism somewhere before writing my speech, and ended up making it the cornerstone of my entire argument.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to actually / truly comprehend the true meaning behind this statement (maybe that’s why I’m literally pedaling across to Alaska next summer to make these wheels fall off?!?!?), but I try to remind myself of it every now and then to keep everything in perspective.

    It also helps me quite a bit to remind myself of the end looming somewhere ahead in the future and all the “work” I need to do in between now and then.

    For one, I surely won’t prefer dying right now with no immediate of an impact on my surroundings, as it would probably be a letdown from the past. To do away with that, I have to live for the future so that the past can be reciprocated. And to be able to live out for both the past and the future, I’ve got to live in and through the present. Right???

    Accordingly, might as well keep “riding” till the wheels fall off!!!

    Kris is most correct, having the awareness and appreciation is most critical of ’em all.

    Thank you for the great post Tim.

    Thank you.

  9. Heather Says:

    As healthy people, we can all “live now” and say we will live each day to the fullest. But what if you can’t live each day to the fullest? What do we say to those people?

    Ever since my gramma’s major surgery nearly two years ago exactly to remove colon cancer tumors, resulting in her colostomy, her quality of life has declined. The tumors have run rampant. Today, my gramma lives in a makeshift but comfortable suite comprised of my parents’ dining and living room, replete with a hospital bed/materials and curtains, and all the love of her family and friends.

    I am at a loss of what to say to her sometimes. My mom, a true saint, feeds, washes, even changes her. I sometimes try to feed her but I get so frustrated. Gramma, always one for guarding her modesty, is emotionally rattled at every event, and physically in pain from moving so much. But it is her guilt at perceiving herself as a “burden” that really gets my heart in a vise.

    I told her, “Gramma, you are like a beautiful garden. Sure, people can see and appreciate you, but the one who works very hard on you is going to appreciate every petal they see. We take care of you because we would not have it any other way.”

    Maybe she just doesn’t get it no matter how hard we explain, because of the medicine. Maybe she does understand but still struggles with it. Or maybe she doesn’t truly believe it in her heart. What do I say to that? What do I say to my mom?

    There is really no answer.

  10. Tim Walker Says:

    Heather — Thanks for sharing this wrenching experience.

    I would never make light of anyone’s suffering, and I’ve had loved ones who have endured great pain at the end of their lives. But I wonder if your own words don’t point the way toward greater wisdom on this issue. You believe that your grandmother could suffer less (not none, but less) if she could let go of her feelings of guilt. From what you say here, I’m prone to agree.

    Your Gramma is having a major reaction to a major trauma, complicated by the effects of strong drugs and chronic pain. Lacking any special expertise, all I can recommend is that you present her daily with things that she enjoys.

    By no means do I think that what I wrote in the post above will apply equally well in all cases. I will say, though, that I’ve seen many people who have had major reactions to minor traumas, and a few folks who have managed to have good-humored reactions to major traumas.

    Maybe the best you and I can do is to try to live like those folks — to maintain the greatest sense of equanimity we can under our current circumstances.

  11. Wednesday Bubble - Cherry Tomatoes « Flashfree Says:

    […] Last week, fellow blogger Tim Walker wrote a beautiful, inspirational post on living richly every day because life is too often, unexpectedly shortened. In only a moment. In a moment, cherry tomatoes can become lodged in one’s throat. In a moment, someone you love may be diagnosed with a chronic terminal illness. And in a moment, that wonderful thing we call life can be stolen away. […]

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