Unraveling the Mortality Conundrum

Having lived in California for most of my life, I’ve been through several earthquakes. The two strongest ones I recall were the 1989 Loma Prieta quake (7.0) and the 1994 Northridge quake (6.7).

During the Loma Prieta quake (near San Francisco) on Oct 17, 1989, I was on the top floor of an 8-story building in Berkeley. The building rolled and shook as people screamed, and shortly after the quake I could see several fires breaking out around the city. This quake damaged the Bay Bridge and flattened the Cypress Freeway in Oakland. Just below my window a busted fire hydrant sent water blasting 40-50 feet into the air.

By far the strongest quake I personally experienced was the Northridge quake on Jan 17, 1994. It killed 51 people and did an estimated $44 billion in damage. I lived only eight miles from the epicenter when it struck at 4:31am. The ground of my first-floor apartment felt like rolling ocean waves, and I was tossed around the room. Most of my furniture slid several feet from the walls, and some of my more fragile possessions, including my TV, were destroyed. Electricity and water were out for several days. Some of the balconies in my apartment building partially collapsed, and most of the shops in the area saw their windows blown out. I lived a block away from a popular shopping mall (the Topanga Plaza), and from the street I could see directly into the second and third floors of one of the department stores because the entire side wall had become a pile of rubble on the ground.

Just one month before the Northridge quake, I was living in an apartment in Northridge about a mile from the quake epicenter. My apartment building was across the street from the Cal State Northridge (CSUN) parking structure that collapsed during the quake. Fortunately, I had just graduated in Dec 1993 and moved out of that area to Woodland Hills several miles away. I lived in Northridge again from 1999-2000, and even then the campus was still recovering from quake damage — many classes were still being held in temporary buildings, and tents were used to house administrative staff. If I had not graduated when I did, it may have taken me a lot longer to graduate due to the disruption of school services the following semesters.

While certainly others have been through far worse, violent acts of nature can serve as a reminder that much of life resides outside of our control. Sometimes life knocks us down and tosses us around, and we must roll with the punches. It may not be fair or welcome, but it happens.

And the worst part of this lack of control is the mortality conundrum — we could die at any time in some totally random and unpredictable event through no fault of our own.

I think, therefore, that whatever plans we make for the future, we must consider the possibility that we might be forced to leave this planet sooner than expected. Regardless of the degree of conscious control we assert over our lives, that control is never absolute. The random element is omnipresent.

If I assume I’ll live into my 80s or 90s as my grandparents did, I’ll live my life differently than if I assume I’m going to die in the next 30 days. Who wouldn’t? But the truth is that I don’t really know when I’ll go. It probably won’t be for many decades, but it could very well be tomorrow.

The actor James Dean said, “Dream as if you’ll live forever, and live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” There are several popular variations on this quote, and they serve to remind us to pay attention to what we truly value. The finality of mortality endows reality with vitality.

While it can be difficult to figure out what matters most to us even when considering that we might die tomorrow, perhaps it’s easier to notice what matters least. If you knew you’d die tomorrow, what wouldn’t you do? What activities would you definitely not include in your last 24 hours? Work? TV? Email? Web surfing? What people would you not spend even a moment of your last 24 hours with?

How would you choose to experience your last day as a human being? Why not find out? Consider taking one day out of your life to have that experience now — perhaps an otherwise empty Saturday. Live that day from dawn til dusk as if it were your last. Feel every precious minute ticking by. What time would you get up? What would you eat for your last breakfast? Who would you spend time with? Where would you go? What would you do?

If you actually take a day to run this experiment to see what you come up with, perhaps you’ll notice that there are things you would do during those last 24 hours that currently have too little presence in your daily life. Can you bring some of those things into your life right now even if you don’t expect to die tomorrow? Can you cut back on some of those things that would be irrelevant in your final days?