The idea of life expectancy is commonly associated with statistical assumptions about how long, on average, we might expect to live. It can also be thought of as an approximation of when we will die. Statistical assumptions about life expectancy are extremely fragile, that is, we are constantly surrounded by myriad influences that can render our assumptions about how long we live irrelevant. Disease can dramatically decrease our life span, while a sudden accident can end our life in the space of a single moment in time. On a personal level, all statistical assumptions about life expectancy are imbued with the relentless presence of mystery, the unknown, and the unexpected. We understand the logic of statistical averages, but we have no way of knowing how long we will actually live.
As aging becomes more advanced, the feeling of time becomes more urgent. In our younger years, we feel as though we have all the time in the world ahead of us. As we journey into the second half of our life, we are touched by the felt-meaning of the disappearance of time. Somewhere in the temporal space of mid-life, we pass through a point of no return and realize that more of our life now lies behind than is likely to be ahead of us. For the first time we feel as though our future is contracting, but strangely our past is expanding. The second half of life is also a time when the probability of disease increases, and perhaps for the first time we develop an authentic appreciation of just how fragile our circumstances really are. Life can have different plans for us, and we may suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an unexpected life.
The World Health Organization (WHO) tracks life expectancy for many regions of the globe in the Global Health Observatory Data Repository. The table below shows the data for life expectancy in different regions around the globe. Two different categories are provided: a) life expectancy at birth; and b) life expectancy at age 60. In general, women are expected to live longer than men. In 2009 the Americas had the highest life expectancy at birth at seventy-six years, while Africa had the lowest life expectancy at fifty years: a person born in the Americas is expected to live fifty percent longer than a person born in African.
There has been a general increase in life expectancy, though just how long this trend can continue remains to be seen. It is also interesting to note that if we reach age sixty, our life expectancy increases relative to life expectancy at birth. The World Life Expectancy map provided below offers an interesting visual representation of life expectancy for many countries around the globe (an interactive version is available at World Life Expectancy: Live Longer Live Better). Another important source of statistical information is the World Health Organization’s annual publication of World health Statistics.
Canadian life expectancy ranks among the highest in the world. According to World Life Expectancy, the average Canadian will live to 81.3 years of age, which is approximately thirty years longer than a person in Sub-Saharan Africa. The second half of life, statistically speaking, begins at around age forty, while for the average African it occurs somewhere around the age of twenty-six.
Is it wise to “expect” that we will live a certain amount of time as defined by statistical probabilities? Of course, we know that it would be unwise to do so. The reason for this is that a great deal of our experiences in life is unexpected, unintended, surprising, and mysterious. Statistical averages form generalizations that are interesting to examine, however, the course of our life is never average or probable, and our authentic life experiences are always divergent, variable, and unique.
An Unexpected Life
Many of our experiences in life are unexpected. As much as we might try to consciously plan and implement a controlled path through life, we are easily pulled off that path through the appearance of unexpected events that emerge from unseen places. Mystery stands immediately by our side throughout every moment of our lives. There is nothing wrong with making plans and pursuing a vision of the future, but we must simultaneously embrace the stark reality that we are offered no entitlement or reassurances in life. Regardless of how much control we attempt to exert over the course of our life, our most cherished plans, hopes, and dreams may never materialize.
The promise of life expectancy might make us lethargic. The feeling of having plenty of time may cause us to push our deepest hopes and dreams for our life further and further into the future. Perhaps we view our lives as having to do what is needed to be done now in order to arrive at some optimal lifestyle in the future. In a sense, we are enduring a self-imposed stasis that is viewed as a necessary price to pay in order to obtain future reward. We are waiting to live, and increasing the probability of disappointment in life. We do not plan a life, we live a life.
Life expectancy is always a work of fiction. We cannot know with any meaningful degree of certainty how much time we have left; the actual duration of our own individual life span is an impenetrable mystery. We a may suddenly die in an accident, or discover that we have a disease that significantly shortens our life span. Time always forms a question mark. The most essential learning that life expectancy teaches us is not about how long we might live, but the crucial importance of embracing life while we do have it. We are better off living in and for the present moment, than lying in wait for a future that may never materialize.
Life expectancy is not only about how long we might expect to live, it is also about the approximation of our own death and this can be quite unsettling. Our society has sterilized and sanitized death, externalized it through medical technology, degraded it through the media, commodified and institutionalized it through commerce, and largely rendered authentic death and dying invisible. As a society, we lack facility, knowledge, insight, experience, and the wisdom to embrace death and dying in an authentic and personal manner. We may attempt to delude ourselves into believing that it is easier to not think about the end of life, and develop well-honed avoidance strategies. Death avoidance only serves to generate fear and anxiety.
Thinking about having a predetermined amount of time left in life can be unsettling. It is unproductive to live in constant fear of tragic circumstances falling upon us from an unseen place, but we also must recognize that the future we hope for may never arrive. This helps us to embrace our most valued priorities in the here and now, rather than delaying them to some “ideal” period of time in our future. If we fully embrace the idea life expectancy, we learn to value the present moment more completely. We should not live our lives waiting for the future; the future never arrives.
An Unexpected Embrace
Quality of life is paramount; to live a long life of extended suffering is obviously undesirable. It seems bitterly ironic that we have found ways to scientifically extend our life span, but have not focused an equal amount of effort on maintaining or extending our quality of life. Quality of life should be about more than just pain management and human warehousing for the aged. There certainly is nothing wrong with holding a desire to live as long as possible, but at some point perhaps the personal cost we pay to simply exist is too high. We should centre our hopes and expectations for life on quality, not duration.
“I never expected it would be like this.”
During the final few years of his life, my father would sometimes say, “I never expected it would be like this.” He was referring to the cascading series of events that happened to both my mother and father as the effects of old age began to rob them of their independence. Due to advances in medical science and technology, the end of life experience has become long drawn out experience in which we are kept alive while our quality of life steadily declines. More specifically, we spend more time dying. Death remains inevitable, but dying is now taking longer and longer.
None of us wish to live life in despair, but is surprising how much of our daily mental effort is dedicated to worrying about things we cannot change or never come to pass. The trajectory of our own aging will be what it will be. The old adage always expect the unexpected carries an air of wisdom about it. We can choose to remain open to the emergence of the unexpected and greet it with a capacity for improvisation, imagination, resilience, and grace. Whether we choose to embrace it or not, the unexpected will inevitably emerge in our life in ways we cannot hope to foreshadow.