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.

Guest Post · health

What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death (Guest post)

death head, art journal page, September 2005

I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and had a double mastectomy in September. Now my doctors are recommending chemo and radiation to reduce the chances of my cancer coming back. If this is a war, I’d better win, right? So I’m turning to my martial arts training for guidance on fighting. And – surprisingly – making peace with death.

One of the reasons that cancer scares us is because it can kill us. But when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t worried about dying. I read that the overall survival rate from breast cancer was good. And I was going to be one of the survivors, obviously.

Then one of the lymph nodes removed during my double mastectomy tested positive for cancer. Funny how something so simple can change everything.

Before I write anything else, let me say that my odds of surviving five years are still quite good. I have Stage 2 breast cancer. I haven’t been handed an automatic death sentence. My cancer is curable. But as I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the implications of all of the characteristics of my particular disease (lobular, invasive, pre-menopausal, hormone sensitive, five tumours – the largest 4 cm, one positive lymph node), and I’m being asked to make decisions about the next steps in my treatment, I suddenly feel like a gambler playing Russian roulette with my own life. What are my odds if I do this treatment? What if I don’t do this one? And do the survival numbers even mean anything, anyhow?

And… lately I’ve been thinking about the possibility of dying from cancer.

Some people would say that’s a bad thing. Don’t think about it, and it won’t happen. Don’t “go gentle into that good night.” Be a warrior. Be a survivor. Beat cancer. Whip its ass.

Thing is, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life – however long that may be – fighting. Call me crazy, but I want to actually live my life. I want to love, and laugh, and play, and make things. Do good things. Make a difference. And I’m not sure I can do any of that if I’m in constant battle mode.

I met with my radiation oncologist this week, and was disheartened to learn that the cancer found in my lymph node, while small, had been penetrating the lymph node wall. Which might mean that the cancer was spreading beyond the node before it was removed, and that the surgeon left cancer cells behind.

I hadn’t considered that. As far as I was concerned, when they cut off my right breast and took out that positive lymph node, they got rid of all my cancer. Chemo was going to be a formality for me – an insurance policy that might even be kind of optional.

Now I suddenly feel like I may have a time bomb ticking inside my body. Can the bomb be disabled? Will it go off someday? When? Am I going to have to spend the rest of my life worrying about something that may not even happen? If I choose not to have a treatment now, because it promises to only marginally improve my odds of dying from breast cancer, but later end up getting breast cancer after all, will I kick myself for not having done everything I could do?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t live like that. I’m a worrywart. A ruminator. Throwing cancer fear into my head and letting it steep for the next thirty years would be a horrorshow.

“Today is a good day to die.”
~ Worf, Star Trek: The Next Generation

My aikido Sensei talks a lot during our classes about the Japanese samurai tradition, and one thing he’s mentioned over and over again is that the samurai warriors were trained to live as though they were already dead. That made them fearless in battle, because they had nothing to lose. Within the context of recreational 21st-century martial arts training, being “already dead” means being unafraid to face your attacker, and “entering” the attack, or proactively moving forward to meet your attacker’s strike. (I talked about this in my blog post about how martial arts taught me to fight cancer.)

Lately I’ve taken Sensei’s words even further, and have been meditating on the idea that I’m truly already dead. I’m finding there are some real lessons there about not fearing death.

Let me start by sharing that I’ve lived extended periods of my life thinking about death. My brother killed himself 18 years ago, and in the aftermath of his suicide I was plunged into a suicidal depression myself. I spent the next 10 years dancing with depression and suicidal thoughts, and while it’s been many years since I’ve been in that psychological pit, it’s left me with a lasting sense that death is not all negative. Death can be a comfort – a release.

In the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I started thinking about death again. I proactively got all my financial affairs in order, recognizing that there was a very small possibility that something might go wrong during my surgery, and I might die on the operating table. I got my last will and testament witnessed by close friends. I made some notes for my family about my wishes for my body, and the kind of memorial service I’d like to have. I looked around my apartment at all my unfinished projects, panicked at thought of trying to wrap everything up, then realized that it would be somebody else’s problem once I was gone.

My father died of cancer two years ago, and it was a hard death. He was very sick, he suffered for a very long time, and his dying was ugly and awful to watch. I’m not deluding myself into thinking that death is always easy.

On the other hand, I’m adamant that I don’t want to tie up my physical and emotional energy into the need for a cure. I will not “lose” if I die from cancer. I won’t lose if I die in two years rather than 20. I will lose if those 20 years are bitter and fearful. If my quality of life is diminished by worry and despair.

I’ve probably got this whole samurai thing wrong, but here’s what I’m thinking: Screw fighting cancer. I’m already dead. Sometime, somewhere, somehow in the future, I’m gone. I don’t know when it will be, or how it will be. But here’s what I want: to live as fully as I can today, to do my best, and not waste my time on things I can’t change.

Do not look upon this world with fear and loathing. Bravely face whatever the gods offer.
~ Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido


Update: After I drafted this blog post, Sam posted this link on Facebook. Great post on the same theme (“I’ve been diagnosed with life and so have you”); I wish I’d been able to say it that eloquently.


You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Illustration: Death head, art journal page, wax crayon and ink on paper, September 2005

cycling · meditation

Bucket lists bug me

Pug in bucket

The term “bucket list” first entered my lexicon with the 2007 movie of the same name. You’ve probably seen it. Confession: I haven’t. IMDB tells me that it’s about two men who are terminally ill and who escape a cancer ward to fulfill their dreams before they die.

Urban dictionary defines “bucket list” this way: “A list of things to do before you die. Comes from the term “kicked the bucket.” I need to remember to add skydiving to my bucket list.”

And my newsfeed is regularly full of bucket list related stuff. “20 places on earth to see before you die.” I think the book section at Costco has an entire shelf devoted to the genre of bucket list books.

My personal favourite is the deliberately over the top bucket list from Elite Daily aimed at young, rich men. It includes foursomes (threesomes are so “everyman”), heli-skiing, celebrity affairs, and even space flight: “Take a moment to understand how lucky you are, because you live in the glorious 21st century. Astronauts are not the only individuals that can now travel to space. Our modern age has finally allowed anyone to explore the deep space. So, take a trip on the Virgin Galactic tour and envision our world from another perspective completely outside of Earth’s stratosphere. The experience will truly blow your mind away and will place you on a short list of people who have had the pleasure of enjoying this voyage.”

I’m mostly immune to the “50 exotic places on earth you must see before you die” lists. Global warming and carbon costs, on the one hand. Children’s tuition bills and home renovations, on the other. How are these different from lists of things you would do if you were stinking rich?

I know. I get the idea. Take death seriously. Remember that we’re all going to die. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. Just one kick at the can. YOLO. Of course. I used to teach a course on Philosophy and Death and I’ve co-edited a book about it too. I even have several memento mori in my office. There’s a piece of office art, my smiling reaper, below. For me taking death seriously means living authentically, spending time now with the people I love and friends I care about, avoiding big regrets based on fear and what others think of me. Bucket lists don’t work for me because they seem to down play the value of everyday life favour of exotic distant locations and experiences.


What’s the connection to fitness? Well, I keep finding myself clicking on links for bike ride bucket lists like this one since I’m drawn to new cycling experiences.  But now they’re starting to drive me up the wall too since they’re inevitably variants on the “exotic travel” genre.  Oh, Tuscany! How beautiful! Yes, I gather it’s great riding in Tuscany.

But most of us can’t afford to holiday in Europe.

I’ve even ridden in some pretty exotic locations myself: Arizona, Quebec, Newfoundland, the Otago Rail Trail on the South Island of New Zealand and I want to do them all again! But for me that’s largely been a matter of taking advantage of the beautiful places where I happen find myself. As a professional philosopher I’m loathe to talk of my “philosophy of life” but if I have one it includes learning to love that life you have and appreciating what’s nearby rather than yearning for experiences beyond your reach. I approached liking London, Ontario in just the way. In fact, it’s part of why I started cycling. We have great roads and lots of country towns to ride through. Opportunistic living.

I worry too that there’s something almost conceptually incoherent about bucket lists. They’re too much about escape, about individual experiences, about things that can be bought.

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that questions that usefulness of bucket lists and asks whether or not they’re a good idea.

“It can be useful to have defined goals, of course, but the lists seem to encourage a strange blend of highly individualised behaviour and conformity, a situation in which everyone is hurtling, alone, towards similar goals. The psychotherapist Philippa Perry suggests, laughingly, that they might actually have been started “as a brilliant PR stunt by somebody who was selling swimming with dolphins”. There’s a consumerist, acquisitive vibe to many of the lists, with the experience they replicate being the writing of a shopping list, says Perry. Instead of building on what you already have, “to make a good life,” she continues, “it’s really an attempt to fill an existential void”.”

But they help us deal with death, right? The psychologist Linda Blair, again in the Guardian,, doesn’t think so.

“It’s a way of denying the idea of death, not coping with it at all … People usually do this to ensure that there are things to look forward to, which means there are things that are still going to happen … My experience warns me that it’s probably done in order to prevent thinking about death.” Perry sees it as a way of dealing “with how to pass the time. I think it’s a way of trying to generate some excitement.”What we should be doing in our bucket lists,” Perry says, “is learning how to be open with our own vulnerabilities so that we can form connections with other human beings … I think, for me, what’s wrong with the bucket list is that it’s individualistic – the idea of the isolated self goes very deep in Western society – and I think it’s a red herring … It’s a distraction from the business of being human. We don’t all like swimming with dolphins but we are all made to connect to each other. That’s the really fun thing to do before you die.”

This reminds me of some of the feminist criticisms of the philosophical literature on death. See my paper Feminist Philosophers Turn Their Thoughts to Death for the full version. Short version: We make a mistake if we think of our lives as careers, as a long list of achievements and experiences to tick off along the way. Death can come at any time. As Leonard Cohen says, narrating the NFB documentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, death comes without warning. Love his voice. He’s the perfect narrator for that. Bucket lists assume a kind of control over death that most of us simply don’t have.

If that’s too gloomy a thought for you, here’s a bucket list I do like: 26 Things to Do on a Bike Before You Die.

I like the vibe because it’s not individualistic: Share cycling with others! Lots of the items are very doable: Ride a century! My favourite: Race!