This grey cold Friday morning, my grating alarm clock went off at precisely 6:30. Instead of eliciting the usual resentment, this morning it’s shrill bleeping brought a smile to my face. Its 21st of December 2012 and the world is still here. So much for the ancient Mayan doomsday prediction. I treated myself to a celebratory breakfast consisting of a bowl of thick stove- cooked oats with a tablespoon of brown sugar and a drizzle of quarter-cask laphroaig single malt. It feels good to be alive.
It’s not as though I actually expected not to wake up. No sane person I know really believed that the world was going to come to an end. At least not in 2012. Half a century ago it was a different story. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 Americans were convinced that nuclear Armageddon was fast approaching. I was not alive then but those who were insist that it was no joke. Last night I just happened to be watching the last episode in the second series of Mad Men. It is set during that fateful week of October ’62. At the end of the episode key characters are saying and doing things they never would have contemplated had they not been convinced that they might not wake up the next morning. Betty Draper takes Don back despite his serial adultery, Pete Campbell reveals his true feelings for Peggy Olson and Peggy tells Pete the truth about the secret child she had. It makes sense. Priorities shift dramatically when time is running out. What was previously unimportant suddenly assumes great importance and what was once significant becomes inconsequential. On a smaller scale we see this frequently with those tragically suffering from a terminal illness. When the end is near one makes the most of what is left.
But how near must the end be in order for us to feel this way? We are all going to die one day, some of us sooner than others. Yet no one reading this blog is likely to be alive in 2112. Does knowing that our world will come to an end within the next hundred years make us think or act differently? Probably not. If we had ten years left to live would our priorities shift? Most likely. What about if all we had was a year? Almost certainly. A few days? Definitely. But why? In the infinitude of time what difference is there really between several days, a year, ten years or a century?
I am reminded of a passage in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience where he describes mankind as ‘in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.’
The Psalmist similarly observes the insignificance of a human lifespan from the Creator’s perspective:
For in Your sight a thousand years
Are like yesterday that has passed,
Like a watch of the night.
You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself;
At daybreak it flourishes anew;
By dusk it withers and dries up.
The span of our life is seventy years,
Or, given the strength, eighty years.
They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.
Yet unlike James, the Psalmist does not conclude that a paltry lifespan is insignificant. He concludes:
Teach us to count our days rightly,
That we may obtain a wise heart.
The problem is not that we have limited time. It is that we don’t appreciate how limited it really is. What the Psalmist is trying to say is that if only we had the sense to count our days we would live rich, wisdom-filled, purpose driven lives.
The Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca said something very similar:
Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.
Even more poignant is a quote from Abraham Lincoln who was gunned down at the age of 56 after achieving so much in his relatively short life:
In the end it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.
So the world has not come to an end. Let’s celebrate our existence by counting each day so as to make each day count.