The phone I carry around in my pocket contains an app that dispatches several messages to me throughout the day — all reminders that I’m going to die. It’s not as morbid as you might think; the quotes that accompany the alerts tend to celebrate life more than fixate on death. Still, the effect is to keep the end in sight without fear or favor.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the late poet W. H. Auden: “Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.”
For all its philosophical utility, however, a death-focused app is not something that generally comes up in polite conversation. I tend to keep it under wraps unless I run into someone who seems to share my interest in demystifying our eventual demise. Sometimes those opportunities arise under the most unexpected circumstances.
One morning last week, for instance, I was enjoying an extended chat over coffee with a woman I’d known back in the late ’70s. We had recently reconnected and our conversation meandered among various topics, as we caught up on family, kids, careers, and dreams for the future. She mentioned turning 70 recently and described some of her retirement options before veering sharply into more perilous territory.
Dementia captured her older sister in her 50s, she noted, and she feared the same fate lay ahead for her. Having seen firsthand the awful toll the disease exacts on victim and family, she made it clear that a therapeutic death was a much preferable alternative. She’d actually given it quite a lot of thought in recent years, in fact, and we spent some time discussing how our views of the subject evolved as we grew beyond middle age, when the horizon no longer recedes as reliably as it once did. “We just don’t know how much time we have left,” she said.
As a practical matter, we’ve never known how much time we have left, but I understand the desire to exert some control over your fate under certain circumstances. Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia can become appealing options for people wrestling with dementia and other debilitating diseases. (The BBC describes the ongoing debate in the Netherlands.) And never having been called upon to provide care for someone who has grappled with that decision, I felt ill-equipped to disagree with her fatalistic perspective.
The real danger, it seems to me, is to become trapped in a sort of temporal cage, fixated on the inexorable reduction in “days left” rather than grasping the infinity of the moment. My clumsy attempts to make that point didn’t find a receptive listener, so I tapped on my death app and handed her my phone. “I think you might find this interesting,” I ventured.
She peered at the quote and wrote something down in her notebook, and we later parted ways. Back at the office, my phone dinged. It was the app. I tapped for the quote, which made me smile. Stephen Hawking was speaking to me from the grave: “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”