“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” writes the Psalmist. What better time to number my days that when I reached the biblical “threescore and ten,” as I did recently? Inasmuch as I am still breathing and in reasonably good health, I will assume I have not yet reached the end of the line and may safely apply my heart unto wisdom, however one goes about doing that.
The starting point clearly is to number our days, which tends to happen more and more with each succeeding birthday as it sinks in that there will be fewer and fewer of them to look forward to. Some years ago, my wife and I had to replace our furnace, and the installer confidently assured us the new one would be good for at least 30 years. Doing some quick math, I realized the new furnace might be good for longer than I would. The furnace, the house, my wife, my kids, my granddaughter -- indeed, the whole world would probably be around longer than I would.
Inevitably, we all come to think of ourselves as the still point in a turning world, as T.S. Eliot might have expressed it. Whatever happens, wherever it happens, no matter when it happens, we are always right here to experience it, stage center. But what happens after we poor players have ceased to strut and fret our hour upon the stage? Freud believed our own death is unimaginable to us, and if we did try to imagine it, we are really surviving as spectators. Perhaps so, but I have noticed a gradual shift in perspective as I have crept up on old age. Rather than thinking of life as something that passes through me, like film through a projector, I realize I am just passing through life myself.
"The meaning of life is that it stops,” Franz Kafka once declared. As long as we seek to evade this truth, we deny ourselves the opportunity to discover life’s deepest meaning, however it may apply to us. Take Dunbar, Yossarian’s pal in Joseph Heller’s satirical novel, Catch-22. A bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, Dunbar had a theory that your life would pass more slowly if you bored yourself to death. So he spent most of his time doing nothing, just lying on his bunk and staring up at the ceiling. You might think this was a rather peculiar stance to take for someone who recognized that “you're inches away from death every time you go on a mission.” Yet you only had to glance in the rearview mirror to see how rapidly your life was disappearing behind you. “How much older can you be at your age?” he wondered. “A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you ever going to slow down?" You might think Dunbar was only too aware that life stops, but he wasn’t really looking to the end of life, he was looking behind him to the life he had already lived. And he was too busy trying to apply the brakes to really live the life that was apportioned to him.
Another school of thought is that you should live every day as if it were your last. There is something to be said for this. Presumably you would not be spending the day lying in your bunk staring up at the ceiling – unless, of course, it truly was your last day, and you were a prisoner on death row. How should you live your final hours under such circumstances? Opportunities for self-expression might be limited; however, condemned inmates are customarily granted a last meal of their own choosing. Harry Hargreaves did a photo essay called "No Seconds" that recreated what condemned prisoners requested for their last meal. Predictably, their menu choices would make a nutritionist blanch, almost uniformly high in salt, sugar and fat. Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer who was mentally incapacitated after shooting himself in the head, requested steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid and pecan pie. However, he left the pecan pie untouched on the eve of his 1992 execution in Arkansas, telling a guard he was saving it for later. One of the few creative meal choices was attributed to Victor Feguer, who was hanged in Iowa for murder and kidnapping in 1963. For his final meal, he ordered a single olive with the pit still in it in the hope that an olive tree would grow from his grave.
It turns out that living each day as if it were your last has its drawbacks, particularly if you know it really is your last day. Many prisoners on death row decline to order a final meal, and I suspect many others discover their enjoyment is severely compromised – unless, of course, they are mentally incapacitated and think they can save their dessert for later. Otherwise, they may discover they can’t really focus on today when their thoughts are riveted on what is coming tomorrow.
Learning to number our days is not really the same thing as knowing our days are numbered. At 70, I realise there is a delicate balance that must be struck. When Jesus said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” he was not suggesting we should live as if there were no tomorrow. He hastened to add, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” By this he meant that life is apportioned to us day by day, so there is little sense in getting ahead of ourselves. The Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade went even further, writing, “We must confine ourselves to the present moment without taking thought for the one before or the one to come.” He went on: “No moment is trivial, since each one contains a divine Kingdom, and heavenly sustenance.” Something of this idea is captured in a Zen story about a man dangling from a vine on a high cliff to escape a ravenous tiger. Two mice emerge from a hole in the cliff and begin gnawing on the vine.· In this moment of upmost peril, the man spies a ripe strawberry growing on the vine and pops it in his mouth. How delicious, he thinks.
Sigmund Freud, Our Attitude Towards Death