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Are Thoughts of Your Own Death Influencing How You Live the Last Third of Your Life?
Living your best life has nothing to do with age
How long are you going to live?
Young people seldom consider the question. The future stands before them as some kind of limitless opportunity, without boundaries or deadlines. From their perspective, they have all the time in the world to try different options and pursue their interests — or to simply wait for the “right” thing to come along.
We used to be those young people.
At fourteen, we couldn’t imagine what another ten years would bring. At sixteen, designing our future meant choosing what to do with our weekends or making plans to ask out that cute blonde sitting behind us in math class.
Turning twenty did little to focus our attention on the long term. We were too busy picking and choosing from a seemingly endless buffet of apartments, roommates, weekend parties and recreational drugs.
But the years continued to pass.
And before we knew it, there were forty candles on the birthday cake, topped off with one of those little plastic signs confirming our membership in the “Over the Hill Club.”
Even then, we dismissed the occasional thought about our dwindling longevity by assuring ourselves we’d barely reached the halfway point. There’s plenty of time left, we told ourselves, to explore, to try new things, and yes, to make mistakes and start over.
I’m sure it’s obvious where I’m going with this. At some point, the number of years ahead of us becomes much smaller than the number of years behind. And we realize what our youthful fantasies can no longer hide . . .
Death is a part of our future.
Ironically, it always was. But before that benchmark birthday that made us eligible for senior discounts, it seemed so distant and unimportant. Seldom did we consider it a factor in determining the major decisions of our lives.
But now, at sixty or seventy, the reminder of our limited longevity becomes the elephant in the room. Growing more obvious with every birthday, the unspoken questions haunt us with increasing intensity: How many celebrations are left? How many Christmases? How many 4th of July barbeques?
It’s no longer a question of whether or not our impending demise affects our thinking, but the degree to which it influences our decisions and activities. And that prompts the question . . .
Should we let thoughts of our own death influence the last third of our lives?
And if so, why?
The question is important. Because life spans have been rising over the last century, providing elders with new opportunities.
Those “extra” years could mean a new career in a field that’s always held a personal interest. Or teaching an adult education class at the local college, writing a book, or learning to play an instrument. It could also mean using all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained to help others with their business and personal challenges.
But for the majority — those who’ve been drinking the culturally-appropriate Kool-aid for forty years — starting a new career, or taking a trip to a third-world country, or even taking a few classes at the community college seems like a huge overreach.
Why? Is it because those options are more physically challenging than our typical retiree is capable of? Or is it because it will remove the option of simply doing nothing?
I don’t think it’s any of those things.
I think it has everything to do with an attitude reflecting a terminal mindset — the idea of running out of time.
“How can I commit to learning how to paint or playing guitar? To become exceptional takes years of commitment. And hell, I could die tomorrow!”
The conventional retirement mindset encourages us to play it safe. With our lives in the last stage — the one in which we’re supposed to wind down, take it easy, and avoid new risks — we’re encouraged to resign ourselves to enjoying the temporary satisfaction of physical comforts.
The outcome isn’t pretty . . . or productive. Refusing to take on new challenges because you might run out of time is a symptom of having set a deadline for your own death!
Oh, I don’t necessarily mean in terms of a specific year, month, and day. Rather, it’s a mindset that overshadows your attitude, influences your decisions, and limits your choices.
I’ve overheard some of my contemporaries accuse me of being unrealistic, refusing to face the fact that death is my ultimate and inescapable destiny. But even with that final curtain call staring me in the face, I see no reason to dwell on the fact.
Our body has an overwhelming tendency to follow our brain’s instructions. It follows orders. Make no mistake — if we believe it, our body does its best to comply.
What if we told ourselves that eighty years isn’t enough? What if we decided those actuary tables are a fairy tale?
Disregarding the neat and tidy statistics that presuppose our health, attitude, and resulting longevity to be as average as the rest of the herd, there’s no reason we can’t expand the limits of our own life span — based on what we want to do, the physical condition we want to maintain, and the way we wanted to feel about our lives.
Wouldn’t that be a better lie than the one we’ve been telling ourselves?
I hear the resisting traditionalists grumbling in the background . . . Ignoring your mortality won’t give you an extra minute on this earth.
Are you sure? Personal beliefs power our perception. They also influence our reality.
Telling yourself you have the possibility of living to a hundred is no different than forecasting your morbidity at eighty — or sooner. And unfortunately, sooner is more likely, once you begin telling yourself you’re living your last decade, and that the majority of life — with its accomplishments, friends, and adventure — is behind you.
Believing the opportunity to do something exciting or challenging is in the past reflects an attitude of defeat — of giving up. It’s buying a plot, picking out a casket, and choosing lilies over roses long before it’s necessary. And even worse, by telling yourself that your life is essentially over, your mind and body will often do their best to accommodate your belief.
What about influences not under our control? What about a sudden catastrophic disease unleashed by genetic inheritance? Yes, they happen, just like people die in plane crashes, car wrecks and random accidents.
But we’ve lived with the possibility of premature death all our lives, and seldom did it curtail our plans for the future because there was the possibility of slipping on a banana peel and breaking our neck.
Here’s the takeaway . . .
How you spend the last decade or two of your life is your choice — no matter how long you live.
Remember George Burns? He began his solo career at age eighty and continued doing the work he loved right up until his death — at age 100!
Joseph A. Campbell (Campbell Soup Co.) didn’t sell his first can of soup until he was 78 years old.
Peter Mark Roget published his famous thesaurus at age 73.
Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first “Little House” book at age 65.
It’s a simple choice. You can pack away your passion and curiosity along with the fine china and other family heirlooms you want to pass along to the kids, and in the process, accept the inevitable, knowing that life — the one you used to live — will soon be over.
Or, you can be the exception. You can imagine what you could do with another ten or twenty years. And then . . .
Yes, being an elder outlier may generate a few patronizing and critical comments from others. Some may even ask questions that reveal their bias and prejudicial illusions based on culturally prescribed ageism.
But deriving satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment from life seldom have anything to do with meeting the expectations of others. Never allow the possibility that you might not finish what you start be the rationale for giving up on life.
Aging well is finishing strong. It’s being the example. And most important, it’s spending your time in ways that are intrinsically rewarding — regardless of how many birthdays you’ve accumulated.
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.