You, too, are terminally ill

People are disturbed by a determinate lifetime.

That’s the lesson I’ve learned this week after I posted the “Life by Months” tool which lets people enter their birthday and get a quick glimpse of the months they’ve lived and a view of the months ahead. Many expressed that the spreadsheet made them feel unnerved.

I got a few people who responded with “memento mori,” or “remember your mortality.” As important as that is, I don’t think the awareness of mortality is what unnerves people. More than death, it seems to be the quantification of a lifetime that is unsettling. It’s an unusual insight. Time is quantified every day – we’re dominated by clocks and schedules and we’re paid by the hour. Why is this schedule more disturbing than the others?

It’s not unusual practice. When someone gets diagnosed with a terminal disease, doctors will give an estimate of how much longer that person will survive given the particular disease. Their time is quantified and their days are numbered. They get their affairs in order. They confess their love and settle their differences. They know that if they don’t get it done within that time frame, they will never do it. They stop wasting time on the trivial. They quit the job they hate and double park at the grocery store. The terminally ill don’t have time to waste.

The rest of us go along, doing things we hate, holding grudges, not telling that cute girl that she’s cute. We can wait until the time is right, and we’ll do all the important things then. For now, we can tolerate the trivial. We’re healthy. We have time to waste.

Except that we don’t. At birth, we get an estimate of how much longer we’ll survive, but because we don’t get labeled with a disease, we go on forgetting that we, too, need to get our affairs in order. It’s a luxury that those with a diagnosis don’t have. They’re told that they’re terminally ill and they never forget. Tragically, the healthy forget that, although there is no diagnosis, they, too, are terminally ill.

Which is why I made that spreadsheet. I’m a healthy, terminally ill person. I wanted a diagnosis so that I wouldn’t forget.

In the original post, I listed the reasons why I feel it is important to quantify my life in this way, but I thought it might be helpful to expand on each of my reasons so that others might understand why this isn’t an exercise in negativity.

  1. Life is finite: As elastic as time can seem, it moves at a constant pace and I can measure it. Therefore, it is divisible. Each moment is wholly unique. I should appreciate it, enjoy it, and take advantage of it.
  2. I know when I am mostly likely to die, given the vast amount of data on mortality: I have the ability to plan with the likely date of my death in mind.
  3. I am fortunate to have lived as long as I have: Each cell that goes gray was a whole month in which I had the great fortune to work, fail, look at the moon, see that one cute girl, embarrass myself, listen to music, think, and live.

I was expecting people to acknowledge the gray cells as a positive. Each is a little memento of good and bad times gone by. Surprisingly, none of the comments indicated that anyone appreciated their ocean of gray. I was disappointed by that result.

This month, shortly after his fifth birthday, a boy in my home town died of cancer. His parents would have done anything to see him grow into the many little gray cells that manage to unnerve the rest of us when we look at the vast fortunes that are our lives.