Just in case you think I’m a total jerk, I’ll start this post by saying that I don’t literally wish for you to keel over this instant with a coronary event. Why I would write such callous headline is best explained by telling a story that I’ve already told many friends and family.
A Normal Day
A few months ago, shortly after the start of my fifty-second year, I was working in my garden on a pleasant still day. Spring was yielding to summer. It was chilly kneeling in the shade as the ground released the last of winter’s freeze. Standing up and moving to retrieve a nearby tool in the sun was like dipping headfirst into a warm pool. Gardening is not my favorite activity, but I can usually find some enjoyment, or at least a sense of accomplishment, in it. That day, as I worked to revive our sprinkler system from winter hibernation, my spirit was lifted each time I focused on the smell of the soil or the surrounding bird chorus.
Winter is hard on plastic and metal buried in the ground. Pipes break, sprinkler heads seize or inexplicably disappear, connections collapse, and so on. I had just repaired a pipe in our soon-again herb garden, where volunteer oregano had already emerged. I had moved on to replacing a sprinkler head in the aspen grove just uphill, when I noticed a persistent pressure in my upper stomach. Perhaps you’ve never had this particular feeling, but I’ve had it many times before, and it can always be relieved by a few healthy belches. In the past, the feeling has sometimes shaded beyond pressure and into pain, until the air can be expelled. But this time my stomach remained locked tight. The pressure slowly but resolutely crossed the threshold into pain. I asked Marie to bring me a glass of soda water. I thought perhaps the carbonation would force the issue. We don’t have a bring-me-a-beer type of marriage, but Marie likes to facilitate any free labor in the garden and brought me the water. Rather than the crescendo I’d hoped for, gulping the soda water caused a few meager burps. The pressure was still there.
I walked inside and started chewing a few antacid tablets, another remedy of the past. Becoming alarmed by my discomfort, Marie asked me if I had any pain in my left arm. There’s a moment in meditation after your thoughts have drifted, where you become re-aware of the object of the meditation, such as your breath. Marie’s question made me realize that I’d been drifting down a single path of thought this entire time. Up to that moment, everything was subtly muffled and confused. If you don’t practice mindfulness, it’s hard to fully comprehend what happened next. Like mediation, I was catapulted into awareness, but unlike meditating, the acceleration continued to a seemingly impossible level of clarity, if only for a moment. I fully perceived the familiar yet unique smell of our house, the sounds of the neighborhood coming through the open window, the buzz of a fly somewhere behind me, my wife’s concerned expression, and yes, the now obvious moderate pain in my upper left arm. I feel it now again as I remember that moment.
The rest of what happened that day, and the next few days, you’ve likely seen dramatized in movies or television. Within an hour, a stent was placed in one of my coronary arteries, which had been 95% blocked. Two hours after that, I felt nearly normal again. Two days after that, I was discharged from the hospital with a pile of new pills to swallow each day, and no limitations on my activities.
Some of you are probably thinking that you know where this story is going. Some guy has a near death experience and waxes poetic about how sweet life is. You’re probably expecting some platitudes that can sound obvious or even trite:
- Without good health its hard to enjoy just about anything else
- Cherish your loved ones and family
- Live for today, you never know what will happen tomorrow
- Appreciate what you have. It can easily slip away
I could write a page of truisms like this, but you’ve probably already read something like that elsewhere. When I come across observations like these, I always want to stop and consider them more fully. But then the phone rings, the youngest asks for a ride to soccer, the dog needs de-worming, and they find dry rot in the house foundation. What was I supposed to be talking about? Oh yes, it’s hard to keep these truisms in the forefront of our minds. And let’s face it, it’s hard to give them any thought at all on a busy day. But as someone who just danced on the precipice of death, I’m here to tell that you need to give it some thought. Perhaps I can nudge you beyond everyday distractions to ponder life and death for a few moments.
You’ll Probably Be Surprised
My first nudge is: have you considered that you could be just like me? Your healthy, right? Me too. Prior to my little garden party, I was completely unaware I had a health problem and so was my doctor. I got regular check ups and blood tests. My cholesterol count was good, my blood pressure was within the normal range, and my heart sounded great. I exercise an hour every day, almost without exception. I watch what I eat and track my weight. A few months before my heart attack, I’d completed a 55-mile hike across the Olympic Mountains carrying a 45-pound pack, and I had no problem. My doctor said, “It just looks like you’re a ‘clogger'”, and medical science can’t say exactly why.
Maybe you have similar artery clogging genes, or some other hidden health issue, and you have no idea. Every person reading this knows some family member, friend or acquaintance who was unexpectedly diagnosed with a life threatening ailment. I don’t care how many push ups you do, how many miles you run a day, or how many wheat-grass smoothies you choke down. You could easily have a health surprise tomorrow.
Life Is Precarious
My second nudge is: did you ever stop and ponder how lucky you are to simply be alive? I’ve conducted many “risk assessments” as part of my work. That’s where a scientist tallies all the things that could go wrong with facilities, infrastructure, processes, organizations, chemicals, human error, or anything else and determines the probability of various bad outcomes. Most people are terrible at assessing risks. They worry about rare events like a plane crash or a terrorist attack but are completely comfortable with the activities that are most likely to kill them, the best example being car driving.
Most people fail to accurately consider the probabilities (luck) behind everyday risks. So they also have little sense of the luck involved in simply being here in the first place. Or the luck of making it to the next day. For example, even if you remain perfectly healthy, you can always get hit by that proverbial bus. Fritz Gilbert at Retirement Manifesto recently wrote about falling off the roof of his house. Coming out alive to tell the tale was not the only possible outcome for Fritz, and these sorts of accidents happen every day. But disease and accidents are still just scratching the surface. Let me count the ways that life is precarious.
Lucky to see tomorrow – In the U.S., the chances of your dying due to any cause in your first adult decade (age 15 to 24) is about 1 in 1000. By your fourth adult decade (my age group), it rises to 1 in 250. In other words, when you go to your 30th high school reunion and there are 250 former classmates in the room, one of you is going to be dead soon, statistically speaking. People go crazy buying lottery tickets when the jackpot gets big, even though the odds of winning are around 1 in 175,000,000. But they never pause to think that it’s several hundred thousand times more likely they’ll drop dead before they can spend those Lotto winnings. And you have to go out and buy a ticket to win the lottery. In the lottery of life and death, you don’t have to raise a finger to participate.
Lucky to be here and now – You probably also don’t give much thought to your great luck to be living in an industrialized nation in the 21st century. Instead, you could have been born in a developing country, where the child mortality rates are 27 times higher. Or you could have been born 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where only one in three babies survived and the average life span was about 30 to 35 years.
Lucky in time – You probably also assume that your very existence was somehow inevitable. The species Homo Sapiens has only been around for about 200,000 years. Fossil records suggest that the average time any given species has on earth before going extinct is about 1 to 10 million years. Compare these time spans to the age of the earth itself, which is 4.5 billion years. If earth’s 4.5 billion year history was laid out on a football field, then all of human existence would reside within the last 0.15 inches before the end zone. In reality, our existence as members of Homo sapiens is a unique condition in all of earth’s history, but we think of it as a given.
Lucky to exist at all – Scientist broadly estimate (guess) that about 10 million to 14 million species currently live on earth. They further estimate that today’s species represent only 0.1% of the total number of species that have ever lived on earth. The other 99.9% of all species ever in existence are now extinct. What are the odds that we’d make it through this evolutionary gauntlet? As far as we know, out of all these evolutionary experiments, only humans have developed the ability to consider our extraordinary rarity, if we choose to do so.
Lucky to stick around – And who’s to say we will be around for that average of 1 to 10 million years? Because it’s an average, that means many species wink out much sooner. Major mass extinction events have occurred at least five times in earth’s history. Each of these events destroyed the majority of species alive at those times, and in the Permian extinction an astonishing 95% of the species on earth were wiped out. The meteor strike that killed the dinosaurs gets most of the press. However, the common denominator in all five of these mass extinctions was rising CO2 levels, which is exactly the same problem we face now with human-induced climate change. Further, many researchers have seriously hypothesized that one of the hallmarks of intelligent civilizations may be a tendency toward self-destruction. As we become more technologically advanced, we have an increasing number of ways to cause our own demise including war, pollution, resource depletion, and climate change. The newest path to self-destruction that’s getting a lot of press lately is artificial intelligence.
Little Picture – Big Picture
Granted, some of these observations are double counting the same probabilities in some respects. But I’ll wager the odds of your own existence are a lot slimmer than you’ve ever realized before. If anything, it’s amazing that people don’t spend all their time kissing the ground and hugging trees because they are so overwhelmed with their incredible good luck to be alive. Instead we spend our time complaining about trivialities. It’s hard not to hate that two second delay before a cat video starts on your smart phone—a phone that’s carrying out a billion calculations per second and talking to GPS satellites whizzing around the world at 9,000 miles per hour. It sometimes seems like everything is amazing but nobody is happy.
Maybe by now your totally depressed by all this talk about death, extinction, and myopic thinking. But my point is that you should feel exactly the opposite. If you are reading this, that means you are alive right now. And being alive is the most amazing piece of good fortune that can be practically contemplated. That one thought is a source of infinite joy, and it’s available to you any time you care to think about it.
Today, I feel better than before this all happened. The doctor says there was no measurable damage to my heart tissue, and the artery remains clear thanks to the stent. When I go on a hike now, I top the same peaks as before but with a lot less huffing and puffing. My heart attack actually improved my health by any objective measure. This is Zen. In articles on this website, I discuss how a mindful approach to life avoids placing judgments on events. A heart attack is a perfect example. Most people in our society would say a heart attack is a “terrible thing”. But in my case, it was an incredible gift. It reminded me to appreciate life, and it simultaneously improved my health. What more could someone ask for?
So it’s really true. I wish that you have the exact same heart attack that I did, with the exact same outcome. You can thank me after the pain subsides.
What About Personal Finance?
This is a personal finance site about investing. So, you might have been waiting for some insights about how this all impacted my early retirement process, personal finances or investing ideas. I won’t disappoint you. But you will have to wait until my next post, where I will discuss how my new thinking about life caused a reassessment of my personal finance objectives and plans.