“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” – Samuel Johnson
I’m a sucker for all wacky traditions associated with ringing out an old year and ringing in a new. For example, I can get a veritable whiplash with all the looking back and then looking forward. I particularly like the countless end of the year reviews, I don’t care if they are silly or poignant; I revel in them. I love shopping for new calendars each December. I always buy an appointment calendar and a wall calendar even though one would be sufficient. The wall calendar must have pictures. I generally choose one that features nature scenes. I like seeing the seasons unfold with each passing month. I try not to peek at the pictures for the months ahead because I like being pleasantly surprised.
I make a little ritual of fanning the pages of the new appointment calendar close to my face so that I can feel the breeze as the pages fly by. I try to guess what the pages will look like at the end of the year. I try to imagine the marking and notes that will fill these pages and what stories these notes and marking will tell of another year in my life. I try to picture the things that will happen, over the course of the New Year, even though I have no way of knowing or even anticipating what they might be. What I do know is they will reveal themselves in due course. I also know for certain that the New Year will hold lots of difficulties and much sadness. It always does; no use in pretending it won’t. But I also know there will be a fair share of joy and what passes for success in my life in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I always hope that the New Year will be better than the year I just completed. It almost never pans out that way, but that sense of hope, even if it is short-lived, is very intoxicating.
I’m always giddy with anticipation as I count down the seconds to midnight on New Year’s Eve. When I was a kid, I used to hold my breath for the last minute of the year. I don’t know why I did this, but it was fun. Curiously enough, I rarely take notice of the relentless march of time ticking away the other 525,959 minutes of the year. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I could endure that dizzying state of exhilaration and expectation that I reserve for the last night of the year for every other day of the year. Besides, at my seriously advanced age, what is there to look forward to anyhow? Dear readers, I do believe I am becoming a curmudgeon.
I also love to binge on New Year resolutions. Every year I’m supremely confident that my life will change for the better, just as soon as I rid myself of all my bad habits. But, by mid-January, inertia generally has taken over and I settle into the humdrum that is bleakest month of the year.
This past New Year’s Eve I discovered an extraordinary article on the National Public Radio website titled: Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death. You can probably guess why this caught my eye. Death is a pretty taboo subject most every day, yet here was NPR using the “D” word, in a headline mind you, on the most celebratory day of the year. Sheesh, what a buzz-kill!
Perversely, I clicked on the link and was treated to a delightful story about a 37-year-old Swede named Fredrik Colting and his marvelous invention—Tikker. It’s a wristwatch that counts down your life, so you can watch, no pun intended, as each second of your life ticks away. The article goes on to say; “Your estimated time of death is, of course, just that—an estimate. Tikker uses an algorithm like the one used by the federal government to figure a person’s life expectancy. But the effect is chilling, a sort of incessant grim reaper reminding you that time is running out.” I’m gonna go way out on a limb here and guess that this isn’t the kind of gift one would get for someone plagued with performance anxiety.
I though, oh my god, this Fredrik person is a man after my own heart. I immediately followed the link in the NPR article to the Tikker website. There I read that Fredrik is heading up a team of designers, freethinkers, lovers, and life-aficionados, who have been working on Tikker for over 2 years now, although they’ve been thinking about the concepts of time and happiness for well over 10 years.
So Tikker is supposed to be a good thing, not some kind of macabre mechanism to reveal the fragility and futility of life. Who knew?
The Tikker team believes that having a watch that counts down one’s life will make the world a better place. Wait a minute, WHAT?
I read on. “Imagine if someone told you that you only had 1 year left to live. How would that change your life?” Good question! For one thing, I encounter this very situation pretty frequently. My 30+ years of death and dying work have exposed me to hundreds of people who have faced the prospect of their own immanent death. After the initial freak-out, folks tend to fall into three distinct categories:
- Some people, with a little coaching and some encouragement embrace their mortality. They decide to use the natural intensity and emotion of this final season of life to make it the culminating stage of their personal growth.
- Others can’t bear the idea that the end is neigh and deny that it is actually happening to them. They’re gonna beat the odds and cheat death, they tell me. And so they do everything in their power to ward off the inevitable. Like grasping at straws, this futile attempt to turn back the clock, as it were, never ends well.
- Then there are those who vacillate between these two poles. Most everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing at the end of his or her life fell into this category. They have good days and bad days. They have their moments of despair as well as flashes of enlightenment. And most make it to their death with the majority of their dignity intact. No mean feat that!
Despite the individual differences, each dying person I’ve ever worked with has had a similar complaint. They claim that they rarely gave the end of their life a thought till it came crashing in on them. This is a societal failure. The un-golden silence that our culture imposes on any consideration of what our life will be like as it ebbs away provides us few if any opportunities to rehearse our mortality. No wonder dying people feel like they’ve been ordered to belt out their swan song without ever learning the tune.
So maybe Fredrik and his cohort are on to something. Maybe if every casual glance at our wrist to check the time would also remind us that this particular moment will never pass again and that there is a finite number of these precious moments allotted to us. Maybe such an instrument would help us realign our life priorities. As the Tikker website states: “All we have to do is learn how to cherish the time and the life that we have been given, to honor it, suck the marrow from it, seize the day, and follow our hearts.”
That’s a mighty tall order for us mere mortals, wouldn’t you say, Fredrik? Well I guess, that where New Year’s resolution come in, huh?