Overview:

Death is a ubiquitous theme, but with every passing year, its presence becomes ever more pressing. How should we consider this?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I was fortunate enough to swan through most of my life only rarely coming into contact with death. My grandparents, eventually (while I was away from home, either abroad or at university), one work colleague…but I think that was about it.

Over the last few years, that has changed, and particularly over the last few months. I am 46 years old: not old and not young.

A few other former work colleagues and people I have known have also shuffled off their mortal coil. Just in the last month, two friends of mine have succumbed to the ravages of nature—diabetes and cancer.

I have primary progressive multiple sclerosis and recently contracted a vicious virus that has been doing the rounds in the UK. This condition concoction rendered me unable to walk for two days, unable to even turn myself over in bed as my central nervous system shut down. I consider it the illest I have ever been.

Just after this, perhaps getting the same virus, my partner’s father was taken into hospital as the virus affected his already-weakened heart. He is not out of the woods yet. While all of this was happening, my aforementioned friend, riddled with cancer, passed away.

I have had the usual secular feelings. The universe isn’t interested in fairness. Why do the good guys not last? We are all stardust, and from life, new life might emerge. Yet I can’t help but think that you have all the ingredients (desire for eternal life, ideas of fairness, the wishful thinking fallacy) for the incarnation of the belief in heaven and hell—such powerful emotional bribes.

Aside from this, death so often provokes considerations of one’s own mortality and also the mortality of others. I know that my partner’s father, otherwise pretty healthy (stents aside) has uttered the words, “As long as I get to see next Christmas…” Thoughts of his own mortality are obviously front and center of his conscious mind.

It’s a numbers game, after all. With each passing year, the probability increases that someone you know (including perhaps yourself) will die. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, though natural causes become more salient the older you get.

It can be a fairly depressing thought, especially as the arbitrary annual delineation of the new year approaches: This year, there’s a higher percentage chance that I or anyone I know might die than last year, all other things remaining equal.

I wonder whether such thoughts, for the 46-year-old that I am, will change the way I live on a day-to-day basis. Probably not right now. But, at some point, I am going to be that older man thinking that this next year really could be my last.

How would this change the way I would be living?

I often think life has everything the wrong way around. When you retire, your body is older and less able to enjoy the benefits of retirement. But, then again, you are too old to be as actively productive in the work environment in the way you once were. I used to think we should split retirement over the years you are more able: five working years followed by two years of “retirement” throughout your life. I guess the ramification of this is some sort of old-people’s-home sweatshop, working people riddled with the vagaries of old age until they die.

Ruminations about reorganizing life aside, it is difficult to think how someone in, say, their 80s, and with moderate financial foundations, might significantly change their lifestyle. You could get very analytical about it: I give myself two years. That’s 17,520 hours. Okay, at 8 hours of sleep a day, which works out at 2920 hours a year (so 5840 per two years), that leaves me with 11,680 hours to use.

We can be very calculated about our remaining time to find that we have a certain estimated number of hours to live. How best shall we use them? Working? Doing things we love? Optimizing joy? We could work out units of pleasure a certain activity gives us per hour and then try to maximize doing those things. But there are different types of pleasure: The short-term hit of drugs or drink can be pitted against the long-term creation of a woodwork project, or the enjoyment of a board game, a trip to the theatre, or a long walk.

When we have a feeling of a shortening of those finite hours of continued existence, do we consider shorter-term activities over longer-term goals?

I used to leave my students, at the end of the year, with this maxim: One day, your life will flash before your eyes; your job is to make sure it is worth watching. But is this true? Of course, to some extent. But if you really like, say, gaming, and spend an enjoyable 30% of your final year spamming a PS5 controller, is that any more or less fulfilling than climbing a mountain, visiting museums, or some other such pursuit?

Or is it indeed best not to consider these ideas at all? Is it better to continue to live as if you still have 20 years left, even when you are 85?

These questions appear in my consciousness with greater regularity now than they ever have. Well, I never previously had such thoughts, I guess. I just need to work out whether blissful oblivion is more warranted than hard-nosed calculations.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...