The recent death of my oldest brother in Iran was an occasion that caused me to become reflective about my own eventual mortality. Death is the most inexplicable, the most undesirable, and the most certain event in everybody’s life. Well, maybe death is not the only certainty in life if one considers the well-used adage of Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” It has also been frequently said that we can’t cheat death or avoid taxes; however, we sure try every machination we can think of to do both. Just as we utilize every conceivable scheme, legal and sometimes not so legal, to minimize our tax payments, we also resort to a variety of measures, including unconventional ones, to try to postpone our physical demise. In the United States and other high income countries, our efforts to try to cheat death and conceal the physical evidence of our aging have become big business. We follow strict diet programs, and try to eat our daily minimum requirement of fruits and vegetables as recommended by health experts. We exercise on a regular basis and do our part to put money into the coffers of gyms, health clubs, and personal trainers. We take our daily vitamins and food supplements, often out of a bottle, (thank God we have the technology to do that) just to be on the safe side in case we may not have “hit the mark” with our healthy diet regimen. We avoid engaging in risky activities that could put our life and limbs in jeopardy, and we almost religiously try not to miss our preventive medical and dental check-ups.
When we get older, we do foolish things to pretend to ourselves and others that we are still young, attractive, energetic and virile. We dye our graying and thinning hair, or purchase wigs and toupees if we don’t have enough hair to dye. We dress in colorful clothes hoping these will distract from the pallor of our aging skin, and we choose youthful styles that at times reveal parts of our bodies that most people would rather not see. We replace our missing teeth with prosthetic devices, or spend a fortune on teeth whitening procedures. We try to reconstruct the badly depreciated components of our body parts through plastic surgery, implants, and copious injections of Botox. We drive racy sports cars often in bright eye-catching colors with convertible tops, and rejoice in getting rid of the family SUV with its baby seats. In short, we do everything at our disposal to either hide or postpone the degrading implications and manifestations of old age which remind us of the inevitability of approaching death.
We may successfully simulate a more youthful appearance and fool ourselves for a few additional years, but all of our efforts certainly fail to return youthful vitality to our bodies and sharp mental acuity to our minds and memory. We might be fascinated by the death of others, but we are certainly not fascinated by our own.
Understandably, no one relishes contemplating one’s own demise. We find it very difficult to dwell on the fact that one day, and who knows what day, all that we have come to know and love, all that we have given our life to, will go on without us. We will just be a memory in the minds of others, and at that, only for a while. We don’t want to face death, or talk about it, or even to think about it. We try to ignore it as if it will never happen at all, especially when we are young. When we were young, death was not on our mind. It was all about life unless tragically one of our young friends died for whatever reason; perhaps then we may have paused for a moment to think about death. But we didn’t stay with the thought for very long. We had too many things to do and many people to meet; and besides, we thought to ourselves that it won’t happen to me. We thought of our life as a straight line with no end in sight.
This effort to avoid the inevitable is not, of course, something new. We human beings have always tried very diligently to discover new sources of longevity, to search for the “fountain of youth,” and to unlock the mystery of everlasting life. In the United States and other high income countries, people hate aging and the resulting physical deterioration. We spend several billion dollars every year on genetic research and expensive experiments hoping to prolong our life span for even a few more years. Such efforts have been, to some extent, successful. Today in many countries the average life expectancy has improved considerably. In highly developed countries like the United States, the average life expectancy is approaching 80 years. This life expectancy is almost twice as much as what it was for people who lived in the Middle Ages. It is worth mentioning that a great deal of this progress has happened during the last few decades. An April, 2008 brief issued by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) contained a couple of interesting statistics that give a sense of the general progress we have made in terms of increasing life expectancy. The life expectancy for men born in 2004 was 75.2 years, almost 10 years longer than men born in 1950.
The life expectancy for women born in 2004 was 80.4 years, more than 9 years greater than for women born in 1950. The rising average life expectancy, however, has not changed the way we think about death. Our fear and active resistance to death have not diminished. In other words, longer life has not made death any less sufferable for us because the tragic end of our life is dreadful no matter what our age. The sobering truth is that we know not the day or the hour. Death is just as close to us at the age of 10, 20 or 30 as it is at the age of 80 or 90. Even though the thought of death is unbearable for most people, we have all heard of cases of extreme physical suffering where loved ones or the suffering person pray for the blessed relief that death will bring. We have also heard of cases where a person experiencing intense depression, hopelessness, and emotional isolation choose to take their own life, again, in search of the relief and peace of death. However, most human beings want to savor life as long as possible and find that choosing to die is almost unimaginable.
In some sense, a life of 80 years seems as short as the life of 30 or 40 years. In my experience and the experience of others I have talked with, our perception of time begins to change after a certain age. I remember when I was a kid, one hour of waiting felt like a whole day. Now, that I am older, one-week of waiting feels like a day. It seems that time passes more quickly as we get older. We may find ourselves asking more and more often, “Where has the time gone?” The seasons of the year seem to come and go more quickly.
Birthdays, our own and those of others, seem to come upon us more rapidly. The years feel like they are piling up very quickly and soon we find ourselves applying for Medicare and getting AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) membership material in the mail. It seems like just yesterday your child was born, and in no time at all he/she is graduating from college, getting married and having his or her own children. Suddenly you find yourself with a new identity and a new role in life, that of grandparent. We look at our grandchildren and pray to God that we will be able to walk with them as far and as long as possible along the journey of their lives.
Welcoming a new life and watching your family grow and expand can intensify our fear of death. We want to tighten our grip on life; we want to be there for it all, but this makes it even harder to face the inevitable reality of letting go. I don’t believe that there is a reasonable correlation between the length of our life and the quality of our living. In other words, a happy life does not depend on how long we live. It really comes down to the cliché, the simple but profound cliché, “Life (whether long or short) is what you make it.”
Age is not a distinguishing factor when it comes to being a miserable human being; you can choose to be miserable no matter what your age. No one and no thing can make a person miserable; we make ourselves miserable by how we view the life that has been given to us. The persons and events of our lives can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. Whichever one we decide upon will shape who and how we are as a human being, and our life will become a blessing or a curse for others. According to the available evidence, people in the Middle Ages, who lived much shorter lives than we do, definitely were less fearful of death than we are today. I believe with some degree of confidence, that a good many people in the Middle Ages lived a happier and a less stressful life mainly because they were more spiritual in those days. I think they were more moderate in life style and materialistic expectations; they seemed closer to nature and to God, and maintained stronger moral values.
To those who believe in God and in judgment day, death is only a transition from this world to a better one. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, nearly 70 percent of people who live in the United States suffer from some kind of psychological disorder caused by fear, anxiety, and stress. The report also noted that fear, anxiety, and stress were the result of excessive absorption with material life. (Those of us who are not absorbed in material life will have to wait until our psychological problems are eventually discovered!) Death is frightening to those who are devoted to hedonistic culture, the main purpose of which is the accumulation of wealth and power. Material possessions and power will not keep one from death and become meaningless to a dead man.
Can we learn anything from giving thoughtful consideration to our own death? I believe we can. Such consideration, at the very least, generates some serious questions that need more attention. Should we change our conduct in light of the fact that we have no control over our own inevitable demise? Should we modify our greed-dominated life because in the end, possessions and power mean nothing? Should we pursue a quality of life marked by love and compassion toward other people? Should we re-examine our goals and priorities and make more meaningful adjustments before it is too late? Should we ask ourselves what is the best use of the precious time that we have been given in this too short life? I believe we should answer “yes” to all of the above.