As usual, when I approached the freeway late the other night I considered how likely it was that a flaming, shattering crash would kill me before I got home. Then, also as usual, I plunged ahead and braved the traffic, just one of the millions on the road in America on a Friday night.
Foolish, you say? Maudlin, you exhort? Well, when your Christmas card list is black with scratch-outs and you know more dead people than living,
when you visit more graves than houses where friends give you a cup of coffee, "realistic" might be more appropriate than "maudlin."
We begin to die the instant we're conceived. Everything living eventually dies -- nothing profound there, just the most basic fact of the universe. But, one of the kindnesses bestowed on all living organisms rests in a profound secret -- the complete ignorance of the exact time (and usually the circumstances) of our death.
Unless you're a juicy virgin scheduled for the sacrificial altar at the full moon, we just don't know, and can't control, the time of our death. Those with a terminal illness might have an approximation, but are surely still ignorant of the exact minute. Suicide attempts frequently fail, and even state executions have gone gruesomely awry.
What if we did know the exact span of our years -- and that of everyone else? What if that information were tattooed Nazi-like on our forearm -- the very worst birthmark ever?
Would it spur you to greater achievement, or would you simply pursue pleasure for the days allotted to you? Would that known and final limitation endow a sense of urgency to leave your mark on the world, or would "screw it" become your mantra?
Would a long lifespan become the most important criterion for marriage -- or would you bother to marry at all?
Children? How would you dare to have children whose date of death you would know at their birth?
So many factors have expanded our natural life expectancy from what it was just 50 years ago, and, compared to the Middle Ages or biblical times, we're all Methuselahs. Under accident-free circumstances, and providing we take reasonable care of our health and don't supersize it too often, many of us can expect to live fully into our 80's, or even longer.
We order our life toward that reasonable expectation: allotting so many years to education, to productive work, to building relationships, to family responsibilities, hopefully to retirement...always knowing that "it" could happen at any time, but being reasonably comfortable (except maybe on freeways or in airplanes) that today won't be The Day.
If you're still breathing, so far death has been something that happens to others - not yet to you.
Imagine, though, that you knew when the final minute was coming and imagine how you would approach your life under those circumstances.
That one fact would change nearly everything in our life, in our world.
Life insurance? HA!
Estate taxes? Out the window.
Savings accounts, stock portfolios, pensions? All geared precisely to the known, dreaded date instead of ordered by vague actuarial and hopeful estimates.
Relationships -- better or worse? Surely, Shirley, there are some people you'd never feel obligated to see or talk to again, wasting precious time. But those you cherish, the ones you love to distraction -- how would those relationships be affected?
It's painful enough to say goodbye to a friend or family member who is terminally ill, and it's devastating to be given "the news" that is shockingly unexpected -- but what would it be like to look into your child's face knowing with certainty that tomorrow, or five, ten or twenty years from now would be the last time?
Could a marriage ever really be happy under the cloud of ultimate knowledge? How could you give your heart under those circumstances -- or would love be the only thing that would allow us live on?
Some animal behaviorists claim that ill and aged animals know of their approaching natural death and meet it with dignity. It happens in human life, too, to many who are given the opportunity to embrace and accept the approaching inevitable, although certainly not all people die in that manner, with that kind of peace. That calm acceptance of the inevitable doesn't seem to fit with the strongest of our natural instincts -- to survive -- yet, it happens.
It seems to me that our American culture dances in denial every second, refusing to acknowledge that life has a natural end -- every life, even our own. With the crossing of every medical threshold we push death away further and further away, possibly hoping that it will vanish altogether.
Advanced medical technology has given us lifespans artificially extended through chemical "cures," through organ transplants, through radical surgical procedures and treatments, and more and more elderly and ill patients opt for these toxic, expensive and invasive methods.... seeking something - anything - that will delay their death.
If, however, we knew the date of our death, most of that technology would be futile, except for palliative, comfort care.
I think the knowledge of our own death, while dreadful in its own way, would be somewhat of a comfort. Gone would be all fear of flying, of potential violence, of fat-laden foods and bird flu, and we would have a weird sort of bubble of security, knowing we were safe until the precise black day on the calendar.
I think the knowledge of the date of death of those we love would be literally unbearable.