Monday, September 26, 2005

HUMAN BEING 2029320114: EXPIRES 11/23/2034

A few of us at work got into a discussion the other morning about death - a perfectly natural conversation about mortality over morning coffee. I injected my contribution in the form of a tough “what if” question.

What if someone made you an offer? 70 Years. Take it or leave it. You’d be guaranteed to live until 70, but that’s it. On your 70th birthday you’re done. Gone. Dead forever. The office smokestack immediately responded, “I’ll take it!” A second person said he’d take the sure thing as well. I hadn't realized the question was such a no-brainer, so I downgraded the offer to 60 years. Both of them instantly balked.

“Come on,” I said. “You’re GUARANTEED 60.”

They both, being a lot closer to 60 than I am, declined.

“What about 65?” I asked. I could hear the gears turning in their heads. Hamsters running in wheels. Warehouses full of chimpanzees with abacuses, sliding wooden balls and recording the results with their feet.

Nope. Not good enough, they agreed simultaneously.

“Okay," I said. "What about 69? Everybody likes 69."

They both pondered it, then announced forecefully that 69 didn’t make the cut either.

“So wait a second here. That’s it then? 70 you’ll take, but not 69? The difference seems negligible to me, but you're saying 70 is what you'd need? I guess 70 is your magic number. Everybody’s got a magic number.”

Noting the surprise in my voice, they turned the tables and asked what MY magic number was. At first I stood by my policy of not answering my own questions, but then I started to think about it. I’m relatively young, don’t smoke, drink a lot less than I used to, and eat a lot of soy and sushi. But I’ve also got chronic asthma and a habit of walking into traffic without looking both ways. So, like everybody else, I could live to be 90 or die this afternoon.

My magic number, I thought, would probably be higher than 70 – but not too much higher. If I could be as alert and alive as I am today at 87, that would be one thing. But I understand the aging process can take a lot out of a person. Would living to be 87 or more even be worth it? I’d jog a lot less. My eyesight and hearing would go. Arthritis would set in. I’d start complaining about the weather – even when it’s gorgeous outside. At some point I suppose I’d need to acknowledge a life lived well and cash my chips in, right? So when would I like to die? 72? 75? 89? 115?

But then I circled back and asked considered the mystery of not knowing. Not knowing is part of what keeps us sane, I thought. It keeps us in order. What’s the incentive to obey the law if you’re scheduled to expire in a week? What’s the incentive to do anything? Indeed, one of the biggest incentives in life is not dying. Just ask anyone who's had a gun held to their head.

And yet there was something alluring about that guarantee. The security of KNOWING you’ll be around for 10 more years, 4 more years, 16 more years, 4 more months, whatever it happens to be. I imagined there would be an odd comfort in having an expiration date. It would be good for planning things – like trips abroad, and family reunions. You’d know exactly how long you’d need to make that nest egg last. If I knew I were going to die at 47, I’d stop saving for retirement right now and go buy a plasma television.

An expiration date would also be good for getting things off your chest. Think of all the things you’d like to tell people, but never do. I’m not talking about hateful, mean-spirited things. I’m talking about things that are much harder to say, like “I love you,” and “I’m sorry.” It seems we’re always waiting for a better time to share feelings like these because they make us feel emotionally vulnerable. But when you know your time is running out, you’ll pretty much let spill every sappy thought you’ve ever had. Better to come clean now than to take worldly regrets to the afterlife. It’s almost scary to think of how much love would be exchanged if we took away tomorrow. And why isn’t that loved exchanged today if none of us is guaranteed tomorrow?

The mystery of expiration keeps us quiet.

“My magic number?” I asked aloud. “70 is an attractive guarantee – but I don’t think I could take it. Or 75. Or 80. It might be comforting for a while, but I think, ultimately, knowing would drive me crazy. I think I’d prefer to take my chances and not know. So it could be tomorrow. It could be next year. It could be when I'm 102.”

The tables turned, I got a little of my own medicine. “Come on,” said the smokestack, “Who wouldn’t take 95? That guarantees you a long, long life.”

“That’s very true,” I replied, “But it doesn’t guarantee you a happy, healthy one. What if 30 seconds after you agreed to a 95 year deal you wiped out on a wet floor, cracked your head, and slipped into a life-long coma? Or what if you were unfairly implicated in a crime and wound up behind bars? Or what if a freak accident or terrorist attack left you blind and armless? So much could happen in life – you just don’t know. Nope, I’m going to say I like the mystery. You guys can have 70. I’ll die when I die.”

Twenty minutes later I started thinking about how nice 70 would be. The question was tougher than I thought. Fortunately, I wouldn't have to sign a contract of expiration in this lifetime. God makes the tough choices, I thought. We just have to live with them.

Or die, as it happens...


Connie H. said...

OMG,Ter,past-smoking counts too.
Am I wrong? You consider yourself a nonsmoker?Was I reading it wrong?Yes,I guess I was. I must have you confused with some other guy. And the 87 year oldsters don't jog. They hobble, if lucky. Crap. I'd take 71 in a heartbeat. or lack of one. We're a bag of DNA,and screw it up more every day. 71 seems to be the magic age. It's all downhill after that. There are exceptions, but I swear it's DNA related. If your relatives lived to be old, so will you. If not, you're screwed. Have some fun.
Connie H.

Roy said...

My dad just turned 73 and he is healthy and fit as a person can be. I can't imagine him not being around these past 3 years. No, 70 is still much too young for me. I would have to say... 350. That would be grand. I think I would have had enough of life by then.