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Calm • Perspective

When I Am Called to Die

We want to live – of course – forever. Or at least, if that truly isn’t possible (and the jury might still be out), past a good century.

But however fervently we may wish it to be otherwise, at some point, probably long before we quite feel ready, we will be called upon to take our place in the line. The call may be gentle: it often begins with an ostensibly unalarming: ‘there’s just something I’d like us to explore further in your blood test results …’ Friends and family may fiercely resist the verdict and insist on every possible alternative till the end. There will always be the promise of some last minute discovery. Yet eventually – as all our forebears have done, even ones who secretly felt as lucky in matters of health as we do – we’ll find ourselves on the edge of the precipice with only one direction to go in…

Hans Holbein, Detail from The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1520-22

The emotion we’re invited to adopt is too often one of tragedy; something appalling is about to happen, something utterly contrary to everything, an insult, a violation, an abomination. 

It isn’t in any way to minimise the regrettable aspects at play to offer a few quiet rejoinders, not to demean us but to bolster our capacity for gratitude, light-heartedness and philosophy.

We’ve been on this escalator since birth. We’ve been dying since we were born. All that ever changes is the speed.

Let’s put ourselves in a more accurate historical perspective. If we’ve reached thirty, we’ve lived longer than most people ever did across Europe during the entire Middle Ages – a cohort which included saints, kings, prophets and the cleverest mathematicians and poets. It is still a life even if its duration is not quite as extensive as we would have liked.

We may think we’ve left much undone and unsaid but those we love broadly know we do – even if we haven’t quite repeated it enough. And while we may not have accomplished everything that was in our powers, it’s in the nature of our imaginations for our plans to always outstrip the available reality. We are fated to die with a share of novels and businesses, love affairs and epiphanies trapped inside us.

But if we have got to fifty, we will have been around for 438,000 hours; we will have taken 1.96 billion breaths and defecated 15,980 times. We will have had a generous opportunity to say and do a lot of what truly matters. 

If we make it to sixty-five in a developed country, we may have gone out for a thousand restaurant meals, we might have been on sixty foreign holidays. By seventy, we might have seen 6,240 films, read 1,320 books and eaten 12,900 packets of biscuits.

When is enough enough? We might still want to see the southern tip of New Zealand and the most interesting museums in Genoa, but have we not – by now – got the overall gist? Isn’t it clear what this is roughly all about?

Might our fear of death not be masking some other concern – far more real, far more worth paying attention to, which is not that we don’t have enough time per se, but that we don’t know how to draw value from life, however long it might be?

We might live another twenty years, we might – by eating only raw meat or roasted broccoli or the stem of a rare tree – stretch it to thirty but doesn’t the problem lie substantially elsewhere?

It’s very well for those fitness gurus to alarm and mesmerise us with their promises of ten or twenty more years but if fifty can’t be enough, nothing probably will be. These leathery skinned prophets should help us to work on our mechanisms of appreciation and understanding, not our lung capacity and cardio vascular efficiency.

Our complaint against dying is ultimately an admission that we haven’t learnt how to live. The goal shouldn’t be to stretch time out yet further. We should be ready to go pretty much any time after four decades on this busy planet; sad to leave of course, but neither devastated nor incensed. Our fingers should prise themselves lightly from the handrail. We’ll have learnt how to live – and properly deserve the gift we’ve been given – once we know how to say a relatively crisp, relatively untragic, darkly amused goodbye.

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