Friday, March 5, 2010
Financial markets, it is said, abhor uncertainty. Put another way, stock markets tend to suffer their worst falls not due to some terrible event, but rather in anticipation of a future occurrence where specifics remain unknown. This, of course, is due to the fact that humans tend to overestimate the impact of future events (both good and bad). Indeed, studies have shown that people who lose their sight, or both their legs, or some other "critical" function deemed "necessary" by most of us, tend to generally adapt quite well to their new state of affairs. Conversely, the positive effect of things we expect to make us happy (new job, big house, beautiful wife) tend to wear off must faster than we expect (again, as we adapt to our new reality).
In short, reality is relative. Thus, many people remain unhappy despite the fact that large swaths of humanity today live better than the most powerful king a few hundred years ago. The fact that we have central heat, and air conditioning, and unimaginably plentiful food supplies is simply not all that impressive when our neighbor has a new boat...
But this is not really the path we want to follow today. Instead, we have been thinking about uncertainty as it relates to our own destiny. The ultimate destiny is well known, of course (even if we take extreme measures to avoid acknowledging this fact), but the timing remains uncertain. But what if it were not?
Consider, for the sake of argument, that the maximum human lifespan has been conclusively proven to be 50 years. While people can die before reaching 50, no one survives past this age. Society, therefore, is organized a bit differently. People who fall ill in their late 40s, for example, generally reject expensive and involved treatments, instead opting for smaller measures that simply make them more comfortable. Moreover, there is little grief for those who die at or near 50--after all, they lived as long as possible!
Indeed, 49th birthday parties are generally lavish affairs where people celebrate their achievement of this penultimate milestone. Time Magazine interviewed someone on the day before his 50th birthday and asked if he were afraid. "Of what?" he answered. "I know what is coming, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. I made peace with my destiny many years ago."
Often, when we see stories about terminally ill patients, the patients themselves have come to terms with the inevitability of their own death (even as family members have not). The knowledge that death will come soon, in other words, forces one to confront death as real (as opposed to some abstract concept). No need to save for retirement! No need to worry about next week's party! Promotion? What promotion?!?
Hmm...sounds like a pretty good way to live. Pity it's only available to those with a finite lifespan...
Posted by . at 2:20 PM