Have you ever spent the time to really think about mortality, what you value most in life, and how you want to approach the next (and last) phase of your life? When people hear that you've been thinking about death, they generally react with concern for your mental health. That's the mark of a good friend, but in this case, their concern is misplaced. Thinking about death and your own mortality (memento mori) doesn't have to be a sad or depressing process. In fact, it can be extremely empowering! Stoic philosophers have known this for centuries, and it's a method of turning the inevitability of your own death into an asset you can use to make sure you're as fulfilled in life as possible.
In The Lord of the Rings, the creator of Middle Earth is named Eru Iluvatar, who is the equivalent of God in that universe. It's said that Iluvatar's favorite creatures were the race of "men" or humans, and he showed this favoritism by giving them the "gift of mortality". Mortality is considered a gift because it puts a timer on life and gives meaning to every second lived. If you were to live forever, then each day becomes less and less important. There's nothing special about them. In contrast, our lives can be very easily laid out in a simple graph where every row is equal to 1 year, and every box is equal to 1 week (see above). Before reading on, take a good long look at that graph.
If you ask me, that's not a lot of boxes! Imagine checking a box off every Sunday and understanding that you've taken one more step toward death. For myself, it helps ensure that I try to make every single week count. Rather than being sad with each check, you can feel accomplished. For instance, maybe this week you'll focus on family and make sure to call your parents, grandparents, and siblings. Perhaps next week you'll focus on your career and read a personal development book, take a leadership style course, or put your best foot forward on a project to go above and beyond. For every week you can think about when you had fun, when you were lucky enough to exercise (because someday, even walking might be difficult), and when you were able to push yourself. If you find yourself checking boxes without satisfaction, you know it's time for a change. It can take time to adjust, perhaps even a long time, but you can at least consider how you got closer and closer to your goal with each X.
"He greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life." - 3rd Brother, Deathly Hallows
"Live long and die fast" is a saying that resonates with me a lot. The goal is to check off as many boxes as possible while limiting the number of years living with an age-related disability or disease. This is easier said than done, just take a look at the map below.
In the United States, you can expect to live with a disability or disease burden for 10-11 years before passing away. But how long is that really? Well, let's take a look at the average lifespan in the United States.
With an average life expectancy of 77.2 years, you can expect to live >14% of your entire life with a disability or disease. By no means is that a small percentage, but is there anything we can do about it? Maybe, and it won't be easy. Luckily for us, nothing worth doing was ever easy!
We likely have more control over "living long" than we do "dying fast", but even that can be tricky. Nothing is stopping us from dying fast tomorrow having totally skipped the living long portion of our plan (depending on your current age). That's how life works. But let's say that we can avoid unforeseen tragedies like car accidents, what can we do to live longer? Well, put on your New Year's resolution hats because, as always, the answer is diet and exercise!
"There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: 'Not today.'" - Syrio Forel, First Sword of Braavos
Now, I'm not suggesting you go on a crash diet and start working out every day in 2023 if you're starting from scratch. That's how you get injured and binge eat. Not to mention, those approaches rarely work in the long run. The key strategy for diet and exercise is habit and personality. Below are some of my favorite articles that can help you transition. These interventions shouldn't require that you constantly think about them. Rather, they need to be innate and habitual, like drinking coffee in the morning, unplugging the toaster, or buckling your seatbelt. You have to actually imagine these things as part of who you are and integral to your character while still being able to let loose during the holidays and stay sane.
"I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying. Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying." - Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying
There are a lot of excuses for not exercising and eating crappy food year-round. In fact, some of them are quite good excuses. It will be harder for some than others to change, just like literally everything in life. But there's truly a "bottom line" if you want to change your life and increase your health span. Regardless of the hurdles, the good excuses, and the reasons it might be harder for you than someone else, the truth is that your health doesn't care. Your body won't take it easy on you in 25 years because you had it rough. Preventable lifestyle-related diseases just don't care about any of that, which is why hospitals are packed with these patients today. It's not fair. I would never say that it is fair or equal because it probably never will be. Some people will have genetic predispositions to weight gain, some will have mental illnesses that make it harder to get out of bed, some will find it harder to afford groceries, some people have children to look after, etc... Unfortunately, none of that matters if you want to increase your odds of living longer without a disease burden. You simply must overcome these barriers or accept that you're taking a risk. That's the bottom line. I wish it was different, but it's not. So if you haven't been on the right track, make 2023 a year of change!
"To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” – Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (1960s–1997), Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot (1978–1997), Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards (1983–1995), Transfiguration Professor of Hogwarts (1930–1956), Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor of Hogwarts (c. 1910s–1930)
Of course, the point of all of this is to embrace the idea of death, not to scare you into the gym. Life should be enjoyed while knowing that it will come to an end. Having the discipline to increase your chances of a long life simply gives you a better chance of enjoying more life. Healthy eating habits and exercise are a means to an end. They're meant to give you more time with your kids, more time being able to move freely, more time with the ability to climb stairs, lift your grandchildren over your head, walk the dog, stand up without assistance, and play catch in the backyard. Not to mention, people tend to feel generally happier when they're healthy and active. Then, when it's all over, you can pass away knowing that you lived life with intent, meaning, and love. What more can we possibly ask for?