Perhaps we should count years to death instead of how old we are.
Bizarre and morbid, I know. But hear me out and then decide.
The average life expectancy for a Malaysian in 2021 is 76.36 years.
Our first day would be our 76th year of life (YOL’). When we are 1 year old in conventional terms, we would be in our 75th YOL.
If we live past our life expectancy of 76 YOLS, only then do we describe our age as we do now. The day after our last day of YOL – our 76th birthday in conventional terms – we will be 0 years old. So when we are 77 years old in conventional terms, we will be 1 year-young under the YOL system.
Each day after the 76th year in conventional terms is a blessing because, according to the statistics, we should have been dead. It is akin to that ‘new’ lease of life those that face near death experiences often talk about. So any amount of time we’re alive after our life expectancy period is that new lease of life. I will enter my 30th YOL later this year.
I have 30 years left.
Why do it?
First, it forces us to confront how much time we have left before we are supposed to die, according to statistics. We are given an allotted amount of time but we don’t know the day, time, and place of our death. The statistics suggest an average. But no one is average. Each and every one of us is different, and also the same. So 76.36 years is a rough guide. Some of us get more, some of us get less; our moral configuration and religious belief have nothing to do with it.
Second, counting birthdays backwards reminds us that we have one sole life to live, and this is it; that death is final. We get one shot at this thing called Life. It is not a long time. Then into the ground, animals or air we go. There is no coming back to this after we leave. It’s a non-refundable one way ticket. We only have this sole lifetime to say what we need to say or do what we have to do.
Thirdly, it makes us keep asking: What is worth spending our life on? Is this thing we are doing worth giving up our life for? Because doing something or nothing takes time. Time goes on regardless. We have to ask this because our time is limited, and we are going to die. No way out of this one. No government official to bribe. No religious men to beg. No amount of healthy products will prevent that inevitability.
Fourth, in celebrating YOLS, we are mindful that the end of our life is merely the end of a miniscule part of the physical world. We were meant to perish while the world was meant to go on. The earth has been around for 4.54 billion years. It is expected to go on for another 5 billion years, although the rich oxygenated environment necessary for aerobic life is expected to last only another 1.1 billion years.
It brings an awareness that, as a human race, we are insignificant on a geological timescale – and even on our human timescale. No matter how famed or well known we are today, most of us will be forgotten in a generation if not sooner. I have read time and time again of men who were legends in their time that we hear not even a squeak about now. That goes for our families too. Our great grandchildren, if we have any, won’t know about us or even have the time or inclination to do so.
We may turn up occasionally in a conversation if we are lucky, but oblivion is the normal course of events. No matter how important we think we are, no matter how rich we are, no matter how famed we are, we will be forgotten by the living world. The dead are only a memory in the realm of the living.
In twenty years or less after our death we will be no different from the forgotten billions that once lived and died on this wondrous and beautiful planet. That’s just how it is.
Fifth, it is a reminder that as difficult, depressing and divisive as life can be; there are still moments of beauty, joy, grace, love, fellowship, friendship and bliss to be wrung from it. We must embrace them in spite of it all, and be grateful for each moment. Gratitude enlarges life and imbues us with great wealth. Because this life we live, as miserable as some of us may think is, is still a gift. There were a few hundred million sperm we had to fight off to win the race and get born. It could easily have not been us that won the race to life. That already is something to be grateful about.
It is in the now we can reminisce about our past and learn from it or imagine a future and realize it. The now that is you breathing and reading this. The now that slips away from us even as the future relentlessly presses upon us. The now that is the moment of stillness and clarity within the ebb and flow of time. What are we doing with ourselves now? What will we do with ourselves after this?
Ultimately, counting birthdays backwards brings a greater sense of urgency to address a deep need within us and of not wasting our time on things that don’t; it instils courage in us to say how we feel or what we think. Why not? We are all going to die, anyway. Why spend our lives on wasteful, petty, dishonest activity that harms others? Why not spend our lives on something that is a benefit to somebody or someone? After all, how many of us think we’ll live to see our first birthday?
Click here for a visual representation of how much life we have left. Be warned, it’s unsettling.