Tools for being human, part three: Understanding mortality

mortalityThere are dates within a year which tend to prompt self-reflection. My birthday, St Patricks Day, Hallowe’en. On these dates I usually find myself attempting an appraisal of my existence. I think of highlights and disappointments, of what has been present and what has been missing. I often then end up giving myself some sort of school teacher’s assessment. ‘Regan needs to find more productive activities on which to focus his energy.’ ‘Regan is prone to spending a little too much time day-dreaming in class.’ ‘Must try harder.’ And then there’s some sort of mental promise to myself to make changes.

I never thought to apply a score when I look at my life to date. I mean I can’t really look at it like an album or film review, I haven’t yet had a chance to enjoy the entire performance. But if I did have to rate myself, I can’t think of a time when I’d have given myself a perfect ten. Perhaps today I would give myself a seven. Recognition that there have been some standout achievements amongst the scattering of self-triggered disappointments. And as always, acknowledgement that there’s room for improvement. Up until quite recently though, I never really thought about whether there was time for improvement.

Death has always been an abstract idea for me. I thought occasionally about the final moments, the actual end point. Would I rather drown in a sea of lava or choke on a hotdog? Which Metallica song would I have play at my funeral? But not until I started losing people did I really understand that my time on earth is finite. I only have an unknowable number days left in which to train for a marathon, write a best-selling novel, and/or undo the psychic damage of mistakes I’ve made in the past. Lately though mortality has started to have an effect on my understanding of the world. I’m beginning to understand that my choices are made against a finite span of time.

And now I can see the that I might be able to utilise those times of deliberation and contemplation in order to make useful changes.  I can imagine two different personality-dependent approaches to ensuring that the rest of my life can be used to drag up my overall rating. If I imagine my life as a graph, a jagged chart of time versus enjoyment, with each upward spike a moment of joy, or kindness or ecstasy, and each downward dip a failure of morality, character or heart. If I want to use my remaining days above the ground to improve my overall score, I can look at affecting either the time-scale, or the enjoyment-scale.

If I was a certain type of person, I would concentrate on extending the time scale. I would make choices which I hoped would ensure I survived for long enough to achieve more happy spikes. Maybe I start to reduce my exposure to risks. Perhaps my next birthday would be a meal in a small restaurant, close to home, rather than two weeks in a war zone. I might take out insurance in order to protect myself from incidents. Rather than saving for airfares, I’d harbour money for my later years, protection against poverty. My New Year’s resolutions would be used to set restrictions and goals which promote durability over excitement. ‘Drink less’, ‘eat better’, ‘run more often’. You can probably tell from my tone that I’ve opted to take another path.

Rather than plotting to make it to my hundredth birthday I’d rather make the most of however many birthdays an active and varied life grants me. If my life is a book then I’d rather it was a mid-length thriller than a thousand-page health and safety manual. I’d rather take a few risks than avoid all of them. At the end of a year I’m more interested in promises to myself which excite me. ‘Visit a country that scares me’, ‘make my own surfing movie’, ‘learn enough French to say “Two beers please, my friend is paying”.

Of course there are issues with opting for a (potentially) shorter, brighter life. Most of the time I don’t have a Plan B. I go to the doctor when I’m in pain rather than when I want assurance. But the one really problematic side I see to my approach to life, is that there is a degree of selfishness implicit in focusing so much on my own desire to extract all I can from as many moments as possible.

My drive to see more of the world, to hear more from its people, necessitates that I’m rarely in one job or city or neighbourhood for very long. This means that my new friendships are frequently fleeting, that I don’t get a chance to warm them into something more permanent. There’s a melancholy there at times, when I see an update on Facebook from someone I once spent just a few days with. Someone I wish I could have engaged with more, offered more to, drawn more from. One thing experience has taught me is that people are always a component in my happiest moments. Someone to help gather wood for the fire, someone to play guitar while I sing, someone to high-five when I hang ten.

As I write this on the last day of 2016, consideration of my mortality helps me understand what I want from whatever remains of my life.  I’m not great at making promises to myself anymore. I’ve failed once too often at the ‘must eat less at Christmas time’ pledge. But tonight I’ll be thinking of the people who I’ve met, who have triggered curiosity, and wonder, and who have inspired me to be a better version of myself. And I’ll promise to try harder to reach one hand back towards old friends as I hold the other out towards new ones. Because although I don’t know how many days I have left in the world, I do know that I want as many of them as possible to be shared with those people who teach me to fly, rather than those who tell me it is too dangerous to try.

So to all those who shared smiles and laughs with in 2016, thank you. To all those I wish I’d had more time with, I’ll try harder in 2017. And to those who passed beyond my reach, I’ll look for you in the stars when I next dance under the blanket of night.


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