The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go

graveyard overlooking Sydney Harbour
The Waverley Cemetary, Sydney, Australia

But when?

When would you go if you had the choice?

I put the question to the students in my feminism and death course this week and I was surprised at their answers.

I gave them the scenario sketched out here, How Long Would You Live if You Could Choose ANY Number of Years? Here’s how it works, roughly: You get ten minutes to choose a number and that’s the number of years you live. You can choose infinity but once you do, that’s it.

I was struck that all the students chose natural life span or 100 or 120 years. I picked 1000. (Or 500 to 1000.) Best of all would be infinity with choice but the options in the Wait but Why scenario (linked above) don’t include that. The difference in perspectives was interesting. They were shocked at my long list of things I’d do if I had time..second and third PhDs, for example. New sports I’d learn. Dancing! All the dancing. And languages. And visit all the places. From their point of view, just starting their adult lives, the decades look long. They see the years stretching out ahead and imagine themselves tired and satisfied with all they’ve done by 80.

I tried it again on Facebook with the same results. Young friends chose natural life span. Friends my age went for the really big numbers, mostly.

I know that exercise won’t make me live forever. See Fighting aging? Why the battle language? Why not aging well? But I do hope to live for as long as I can.

How about you? If you had a magic wand what number would you choose?

You can follow my death page on Facebook.

My Facebook friends and my students also generated a death themed playlist on Spotify.

7 thoughts on “The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go

  1. I’m 61 and my husband died last spring after a long illness. I’m still responsible for his aunt, who is 105 and lives in a nursing home. I suppose it is because I am tired still and can’t imagine living long in full health, but I wouldn’t want to live longer than 90. Living a meaningful life is hard work and I will be glad to rest.

  2. I think 2000 years would be good. There would be so much to see, do and learn that I am not sure I could still fit it in in that time span. Even though I am currently working on my undergraduate degree, I am already thinking about the possibility of grad school and about at least 2- 3 other areas of undergraduate studies I’d love to do. Actually, professional student sounds like a great profession to me. There are also the places I’d love to see, languages I’d love to learn, cultures I’d love to experience, and new technologies to play with. Would we make it to Mars? Or beyond even? Would I go? You bet I would. The downside would be dwelling on loss : family, friends, home even. I guess the real question of a long life is does the knowledge and experience gained during that lifespan outweigh the losses experienced? Hard call but one I’d be willing to find out.

  3. At 36 I wish to live the way one of my grandfathers did. He told me he had a list of things he wanted to see and when those things happened, he passed a few years later. The things included seeing a grandchild graduate college (I was the first in my family to accomplish that goal….the first through aunts and uncles etc); see a grandchild get married (he was in attendance at two weddings), and meet a great grandchild (my nephew was almost 2 and my first child was on the way when he passed). My grandfather had worked hard his whole live and believed that a military uniform was the best suit of clothes a man could ever hope to own. He didn’t achieve fame and gave up a chance to study at the Chicago School of Art in order to take care of his mother. He had three children, retired from the US Post Office, and prided himself as the patriarch of our family. He taught me about Robert Service poetry and native American history and Greek food all on not more than a high school education. He was 88.

    At 36 I wish to live the way one of my great grandmothers did. She willed herself to die one afternoon. She told her son that she had seen everything and done everything that she could and now it was time. She had been a school teacher in a one room schoolhouse and raised four children. She held education as a high honor and even paid for me to go to a special summer camp for talented and gifted children one year so I could study genetics when I was 13. She managed the family farm even after her husband was gone and always had fresh cookies on hand for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her motto was, do as I say and not as I do, especially as she watched Donahue in the afternoons. She was 96.

    I hope to just find happiness in all that I try and be ready for the day to come when it does.

  4. I am almost 50 and have rheumatoid arthritis. I feel this ticking clock pressuring me to see and do as much as possible while I am still able and also to focus on self-care so I am around to see the joyful milestones of my loves. While I yearn for more experiences, I dread the possibility of living a small existence in pain, so 80 is my number.

  5. If I still have similar mental acuity to learn and read until approx. 90 yrs. or so. I just received a note from a long-time good friend who is 80 yrs. and she is in constant pain (she used to walk for several kms. in her 69-mid 70’s often), who now considers herself officially an old woman because of her pain and limited mobility. This is a person naturally positive by nature and quite sociable with a large group of friends she sees often.

  6. I’ll go ahead and be the debbie downer here… given the choice to choose my life span I would peace out comfortably immediately. Years of depression sitting in my bones means that this is the default answer for me. Life is okay– in fact it’s pretty good!– but hey, might as well go out on a high note if the option is there? It seems like most of my life is in reaction to the fact that I’m going to live a while– have to earn money, have to stay healthy, have to make friends and be social. I’d be okay with giving it up.

    1. That sounds remarkably peaceful, almost cheerful. Interesting. You sound like a Stoic…

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