It’s my 61st birthday today, and that’s a good excuse to write on mortality without making anyone worry that I have a hidden reason to raise the subject. Statistically, there’s at least a 98% chance I’ll be dead thirty years from now, and the 50-50 breakpoint is significantly closer. Still, the prospect of being dead doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Time brings the understanding that life is finite and that what counts is how you live it. Years of distance from religion have helped me to escape concerns about punishments and rewards beyond the grave, meted out by a capricious deity. Fred Small was wrong in “Everything Possible”; the measure of your words and deeds isn’t a final score added up when you’re done, but how you have lived and are living at every moment. Others may wish to sum up and rate my life when it’s over, but there’s no point in my worrying about that.
What does bother me is the prospect of having a long, painful disease; or being helpless for years with no prospect for improvement; or worst of all, losing my mind to Alzheimer’s before my body is gone. Some people are lucky; they go to sleep one night at an advanced age, reasonably active up to that point, and just don’t wake up. For most of us it’s rougher. There isn’t much to do except face the prospect with whatever courage we can muster. Healthy living delays the issue but doesn’t avoid it.
For the present, I have good reason to be satisfied. I’m living the way I want to, have valued friends, am in good health, and don’t have financial problems. Things could change at any time and eventually will, but final-score thinking isn’t productive.
While my life has a definite beginning and ending, the values which make up an important part of my identity extend well beyond it in both directions. Values such as freedom, creativity, the quest for knowledge, music. When people continue to respond to a Beethoven symphony, a Rand novel, or a new scientific discovery the way I do, when they defend individual rights or speak out against tribalistic thinking, my values live in them. In this sense, my life won’t just stop when I die. This is what I tried to express in my song “Bury Me Under a Star.”
Whether I have a fatal heart attack tomorrow or gently fall over at age 95, I look at my life thus far as a finite but complete span and do what’s in my reach to continue to make it the best life I can.