November 1, 2013

We Only Have So Much Time

Our mortality: not a subject we like to think about. Even though we know with 100% certainty we will die, the acceptance of that fact is not part of our makeup. Even though we know age is not a promise of  more life, the younger we are the more remote the concept.

At some point, though, we begin to face our own death. That sensitivity may be caused by a serious illness, disability, or accident in our life, of the life of a family member or close friend. Attending too many memorial services for acquaintances can bring the whole issue to a head. There doesn't seem to be a particular age that trigger the mortality subject, nor can I find any research that implies retirement is a milestone. Actually, it may be just the opposite: a satisfying retirement keeps one focused on life and living to the fullest.

Our reaction to our own mortality can range from panic, anger, fear, and depression, to a calm acceptance based on our faith or realization that running away from the inevitable is a waste of energy. Some folks view life as simply a cycle and at their death they return to the universe the way they started, as a collection of molecules and physical properties (dust to dust). Others have a strong spiritual component that provides a comforting assurance of what lies ahead. Still others firmly believe this life is it. When it ends, it ends. Some religious systems preach reincarnation.

Whatever your view or belief system, even if that includes an unshakable belief in heaven and eternity, death can still be scary.  The trip from this life to whatever is next can be filled with lots of unpleasantness if  the end is pain-filled.

In an excellent article in Psychology Today, author Nathan Heflick identities several ways humans tend to cope with our mortality. Here are just a few of the more fascinating findings:

1) defend their cultural worldviews more strongly. For instance, to agree less with a person writing negatively about their country, to be more punitive towards moral transgressors.

2)  self-enhance and protect self-esteem, such as by agreeing more with positive feedback and taking more credit for success.

3) identify more with members of their own group.

4)  show an increased interest in close relationships, and a heightened desire to have children.

5) show a preference for clear, well-structured information and physical environments.

The full article is available by clicking here, but these five points really strike me as quite insightful. My retirement advice writing, research, and interaction with retired folks of all ages supports his findings. Think back to the post I wrote about Becoming a Grumpy Old Person  and whether that was an unavoidable consequence of aging. While the comments made the point that no, such a condition isn't predestined, we will all admit it happens. Reviewing the five points above, it is obvious some of them would lend themselves to such a mindset.

There are several web sites I found that give suggestions on what we should do to prepare ourselves and others for the inevitable. I have them listed below. But, the purpose of this post is to simply ask you to consider, if even for a moment, what your mortality means to you now that you have less than half your life ahead of you.

Does this awareness cause you to act any differently? Do you embrace what comes next or do you fight, with all your being, the thought that you will someday cease to exist, and the world will go on just fine without you? Does the realization that 99.999999% of the world won't know or care when you are no longer here upset you?

How do we face that? What do we do to make this journey meaningful? What do we do, as the Bible's Paul tells us, to "finish strong"?

Facing your own mortality

Coping with impending death

 How we cope with death

 Create meaning by facing our own mortality

Facing the fear of death

The only comfort I can share is the reality that every single one of us will go through this process. If there is one experience that every human shares it is this one. Anything we feel, or fear, or rebel against, we have good company: all of human kind!

27 comments:

  1. As a nurse, I have been witness to births and deaths. These times of life transition speak to me. And maybe because I have been witness to these life transitions, I am not afraid of death. In fact, I'm glad to know there's an end; that's not to say that I don't engage in and love life. It's just all inevitable. Although I don't consider myself to be especially religious, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 speaks to me - To everything there is a season...I also think we have a skewed sense of middle age. Given that the average age of death for women in North America is ~ 82 yrs old, that makes 41 middle aged and I'm way past middle age.

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    1. A report in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago had an interesting study. It found clear evidence that if someone could live to be 125 the majority would choose not too. There is a belief that at some point, being too old is possible.

      Personally I have no interest in living past the point of being useful to myself and others. Just to breathe in and out for years on end doesn't interest me

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  2. Some folks view aging with ridicule. They find fault with turn signals that are left on, pass out canes to folks at milestone birthdays, and never forget to tell jokes about forgetfulness. Many of them look at RETIREMENT as a doormat at death's door. This view stems, I think, from a basic fear of death and maybe a difficulty in accepting this inevitable part of life personally. You've done us a service with this article Bob. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you, Ed. Your books and web site (http://www.retire-to.com) are a good source of positive ideas for the concept of a positive and satisfying retirement.

      Retirement used to mean the last few years of static existence before death. Not any more...by a long shot! Even so, we will die and we have to make peace with that fact.

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  3. Quality of life...not quantity of life. As long as I am on this side of the ground I am hoping to have quality of life. God may have different plans for me and if so, so be it. He will give me the strength to persevere...if He brings me to it, He will bring me through it.

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    1. God never gives us more than we can handle. That is a basic tenant of my faith and one I lean on, particularly as I age. It may not be easy or pleasant but I should have the strength to see it through to the end with at least a touch of good grace.

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  4. Facing our own mortality in a healthy way helps shape the present moments and can help us savor the days even more. Certainly, it makes me feel that not one moment on earth should be wasted. Not to mean we should be "busy" every moment, after all, a lazy afternoon with a good book is a blessing! But I know I have some adventures left in me, and retirement means having TIME to pursue them. Great post Bob,thanks..

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    1. You and Ken are beginning that great adventure with his retirement. Go make waves!

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  5. As Linda in IN said it is quality not quantity. Averages don't really mean too much. You need to look at your DNA to get a better determination of your life expectancy. Going back four generations most of the men in my family die between 76 -78. Some went quickly some suffered long. I am pretty much resolved that I will live another decade or so and that is fine with me. I have had a pretty good life and will continue to do that with all my remaining years.

    Getting back to the original thought. My father and his father both died pretty quickly with cancer. For my mother it was a 2+ year process. I hope I follow in my father's footsteps. As you say we will all die at some point but that should not determine how we live...

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    1. My dad is about 90 and still in excellent health. My maternal grandfather lived to 89. I am hoping for that range and then a quick so long. Just like an actor knows when to leave the stage I hope when the time is there I make a quick exit stage left (or for my Republican friends, stage right).

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  6. I have rarely worried about the physical aspects of death (maybe I should, I am pretty darn old), but I can't do much about that except to try to stay as healthy as possible as long as I can. But I have worried about the spiritual aspects of death. It occurred to me that maybe I had better get it right. So I read and studied and pondered the whole thing and finally decided that no one really knows what "getting it right" means and "getting it right" could be different for different people. Maybe what we believe is not as important as how that belief affects our lives. So I chose where to put my faith and if I am slightly off the mark, I trust that God or "the universal spirit" or whatever one wants to call him, will understand. I feel pretty peaceful right now. But my health is good and life is good. When bad health strikes, as it certainly will, I hope I can maintain that peace. I am not so sure.

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    1. My biggest fear is something like Alzheimer's that slowly takes away what makes me, me. Devastating as it is for the individual it is much worse on the spouse and family. For that reason I probably spend more time working my brain than my body. Some studies suggest Alzheimer's can be delayed or avoided through such steps. I guess I will find out!

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  7. All I know is that we discuss this issue in theory, but after watching my dad die, I realize that when we actually get there it's a different story.

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    1. Theory and planning go out the window pretty quickly when the end is actually in sight. Watching my mom shrivel up and die over an 18 month period was not easy for any of us. She had a solid faith to ease her journey but it rough.

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  8. As a worker in a Mental Health facility for the past 25 years, I have seen many of the people under our care undergo the final stage of life.
    The most profound passing that I remember, was of a man whose 'voices' had haunted/taunted him all of his life. As I sat with him in one of the TV rooms, just a few weeks before his cancer claimed him, I asked him how he was doing...not really expecting a reply, as he rarely gave one.
    He lit up and shone as he told me he was doing very well, and that he was happy because the Holy Spirit and Angels were singing to him all of the time. He smiled and rocked back and forth in his chair, his eyes twinkling.
    I don't know if he was really aware of the fact that he was dying, but deep inside of him he had gone through a change that gave him Peace up until the end.

    Over the past month my 80 year old dad had his own close brush with the end, via pneumonia and cardiac issues. He will be going home any day now, having mostly recovered. With the pneumonia, he had a stretch of hallucinations that gave him comfort, of family members long dead being alive and expecting him for golf, or calling him home.

    I think, with even my own brush with pneumonia, and other events over the years that nearly claimed me, living life without causing harm intentionally and working to treat others as I expect to be treated, is enough to help find that Peaceful Calm to leave with. Especially knowing how our actions domino through those with whom we interact, and they with others.
    The quick exit is desirable over the final indignities that life will offer us, but sometimes we are fated to oppose those indignities on a more personal scale.
    Be Well.

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    1. Very nicely stated, Mark. I believe I will leave this earth and go to the next stage of my soul's existence. That gives me the peaceful calm you describe. I may be kidding myself and be proven wrong. But, if so I will be truly dead and not know. In the meantime it makes what is ahead easier to bear.

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  9. I think the idea that 99.9% of the people won't know or care that I have been here a little freeing. It makes what I do, less earth shattering and therefore easier to be different and to make changes.

    My own father wrote as book before he died because he felt the significance of his life slipping away. And I treasure that book...because his life was significant to me.

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    1. That is a good point. Rather than seeing that percentage as depressing, it can be liberating. Thanks, Kelly. I had never thought of it that way.

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  10. Steve Jobs last words were "Oh Wow,Oh Wow,OhWow.." I'm gonna go with that thought!!!

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    1. Fascinating. I had never read that. I would love to know what promoted that outburst.

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  11. I liked what my mom said when she was dying and I asked her what she thought about it. She said, "I'm curious." Me, too!

    Several years ago my word of the year was Prepare, and I took it to mean that I should spend that year making my peace with death, not because of some premonition of imminent death, but because it would free me to live my life fully and not in fear. That was actually a great word, and I came to understand that death can be a wise friend rather than a feared enemy.

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    1. Curiosity isn't a word too many people associate with the reality of death, but it seems perfectly appropriate. Your mother was a wise woman.

      Unless someone believes this is it and when we die we simply become dust, then curiosity is quite logical.

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  12. Interesting post and comments. I started blogging when I was facing my 60th birthday because I was having issues with that milestone and writing helps me work things out. At 60 you can't really be middle aged anymore. I don't expect to live to 120, and more importantly without my mental faculties I don't want to. My mantra remains, I don't want to outlive my usefulness. Merely existing seems like such a waste and a big drain on those you love. Doesn't work for me.
    b

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    1. A few months ago a reader asked me to deal with this subject. I'm glad I did. Like you, I have enjoyed the variety of comments. They have provided an interesting mix of thoughts on something we all must address in our own way.

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  13. My 90 year old mother is healthy but I can see how frail she is becoming. Watching her has really made me look at the process of aging, and how her world has shrunk because travel is physically difficult and although her mind is still clear complex problems are very hard for her to work through. She has been an independent woman all her life, now she has to rely on her children to help her. Losing her independence annoys her and she longs for her past life. At age 66 and retired, I had just really begun to come to peace with facing the aging process when two people very close to me, in their 70’s, have been diagnosed with terminal diseases. You asked -- What do we do to make this journey meaningful? What do we do, as the Bible's Paul tells us, to "finish strong"? I now realize that that it is hard to plan for this journey since no one knows what your road looks like. It is important as I face these issues with my family and close friends, not obsess on them, but to try to understand what I am feeling and acknowledge my fears so that I can be strong for them. Thank you for your post.

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  14. You are very welcome. I'm happy you found something in these words to help you.

    Pauls' admonition to "finish strong" has many meanings: finish strong physically for as long as we are able, finish strong emotionally by not allowing ourselves to become negative and bitter, finish strong with our faith fully intact, and finish strong relationally by being there for family and friends as they struggle with end of life issues.

    If we can die while in those states of finishing strong then our life has been one with meaning and depth.

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    1. Steve in Los AngelesSun Nov 03, 11:09:00 PM MST

      Bob - The thought of mortality does not bother me, because, as an American Red Cross whole blood donor on a fairly regular basis (between 1987 and 2009) and blood platelet and plasma donor through the apheresis process on a regular and consistent basis (since 2009), I know that I have saved many lives. I also wish to quote a portion of the Jewish Talmud, which states, "Whoever destroys the life of a single human being [nefesh a`hat mi-bnei adam] ... it is as if he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves the life of a single human being ... it is as if he had preserved an entire world". I, therefore, would like to state, that by my being a whole blood donor, platelet donor, and plasma donor, I have been a blessing to numerous people and, by interpretation of the Jewish Talmud, a blessing to the "entire world." Therefore, as I contemplate my life when I am old, I will be glad and grateful that I was able to do numerous good deeds by saving the lives of other people. So far, according to my records, I have made a total of 168 apheresis donations. I have a goal of 470 apheresis donations at the very least.

      Although I am saying the obvious, I have the following to say: If I wake up in the morning, then I am very much alive. If I drink a glass of water, then I am very much alive. If I am outside walking, then I am very much alive. With every step I take, I am very much alive. With every activity I perform, I am very much alive.

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