Counting down to death

Yesterday, I met a man who has three years to live. He seemed quite normal—why wouldn’t he be?—but I couldn’t help considering him with a mixture of awe and sorrow. “He has three years to live and he’s sat here, laughing and joking, with not a care in the world. WTF?”

Initially, my reaction surprised me. But as I began to think about why I’d reacted that way, the sense of surprise dissolved. All of our lives are slowly but surely trickling away. Every second brings us a second closer to our demise. That’s a sobering thought, but what makes it bearable is that most of us have no clue about the time left on our clock of existence.  As far as I know, I could live to be 102. Or I could take a sip of my coffee, choke on it, stand up and stagger to get some water, trip, fall and smash my head on a table. Game over. Good night Matthew Sweet, may you rest in peace and go to a heaven filled with good books and funny dogs.

This uncertainty is the reason people with known life expectancies shock us. Imagine everyone, upon birth, being issued a countdown timer which ends at their death. We can live contentedly because the time left to us is never revealed, and being unrevealed, we forget about its finiteness. But when we meet someone who, by whatever twist of fate, has had their remaining time revealed to them, we are shocked, not because of some noble compassion, but because it reminds us of our own clock. It reminds us of our own mortality. Explicitly knowing the remaining time left to another individual recalls to our consciousness our own ceaseless march towards death.