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Learning to Number Our Days

cheating death

The King James Bible says in Psalms 90:12:

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Good advice. If I live to be seventy-five, and I seriously doubt I will, I will have lived 27,375 days. The clock will have clicked to the next hour 657,000 times. We all hope to have a long, happy, and productive life. We know our days are numbered. We woke up today knowing that we are one day closer to death than we were yesterday. Regardless of our wealth, health, status, or fame, each of us will die someday.  We can not avoid death. No matter how many supplements we take or how much exercise we do, we will, at some moment beyond the next breath, die.

When I was young I rarely thought about death. Death was for old people or for people who got cancer or were hit by a truck. Every once in a while my sensibilities were startled by a young friend, family member, or acquaintance dying, but for the most part, death never entered my mind. My uncle Dave died at age 26 and several high school friends died shortly after graduating. My wife’s uncle, my dad, and my mother all died in their late 40’s and early 50’s. When these deaths occurred I paused for a moment and considered my mortality, but in a short while, all thoughts of death disappeared. I was young and I had my whole life ahead of me.

Fast forward to today. I am almost sixty-five years old. I have a plethora of health problems — gastroparesis, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, four herniated discs in my back — older relatives are dying, and rarely does a week go by when someone I know isn’t memorialized on the local newspaper’s obituary page. These days I think of death often, pondering my own mortality. I consider the notion of nothingness, never drawing another breath.  Unrelenting chronic pain and debility have turned my life into an hour-by-hour, day-by-day struggle. I ponder in the still of the night going to sleep and never waking again. I have thoughts about how life will be for my wife and family once I am gone.

I don’t fear death. I have no control over it. I know death is lurking in the shadows. Some days, I feel death’s cold breath on my neck. I know that most of my life is now in the rearview mirror. I wonder, what awaits me in the days, months, and years ahead? The Psalmist also said, “Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” Again, good advice. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. The best we can do is live for today, pursuing that which brings love, happiness, and satisfaction.

Older people like myself often speak of time flying by so quickly. Young people think their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthday will never come. For young people, most of their lives are yet ahead of them. Not so for us old folks. Time flies so quickly for us because we have so little of it left. If I live until I am 70, I have about 2,000 days left out of 25,550 days, less than 10% of my life. The meter is running and I am all out of change.

What do I want to do with the life I have left?  This is a hard question for me to answer. To live my life well requires me to daily decide what really matters. To what or whom do I want to give my time and energy? I envy those who have life all figured out. I am a restless person, constantly being pulled this way and that.  My passions burn and wane, and I often have a hard time fixing on those things I want my life to be defined by. When I was a Christian and an Evangelical pastor, all these questions were answered for me. I knew my calling and how God wanted me to live. The Bible was the roadmap for life. Some days, I wish I still had that sense of purpose and certainty. Now I know I must make my own way and find my own meaning and purpose. As a free man, free to do that which I wish to do, I ask myself, how do I want to spend what life I have left?

Two weeks ago, I sold all of my photography equipment, a gut-wrenching decision. I hadn’t meaningfully taken photos in two years, so I knew it was time. Unable to hold a professional camera due to its weight and no longer able to hold a camera steady or keep from falling, it became clear to me that my equipment was just a depreciating asset, one that must be sold while it still had value. Doing so was hard. I wept as I boxed up the last of my equipment and shipped it off to KEH in Georgia.

For now, I am content to focus on family, writing, and crossing things off my bucket list. I know there will come a day when I will no longer be able to write, walk, or ride in a car (I no longer drive), so I continue to do these things while I can. I still hope to finish my Lionel O-gauge layout. I haven’t touched it for six months, not steady enough to navigate the stairs to the room where the layout is located. I continue to drink in the love of my wife and family, knowing that when the day comes for me to die, they will be the ones that matter. We leave this life as we entered, surrounded by those who love us.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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18 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Kenneth

    As humans, we know there is only one life here and now and dying is just another fact of life. None of us wish for death nor do we ever want to meet it. It is built into our survival as a human species and much like all other living things. We, as humans, need a willingness to survive and death gives us that. There really is no need to fear the inevitable, or rely on the fantasy of heaven awaiting us. It is what it is. After all, has anyone ever wished they were alive when they weren’t even born yet?

    This is how I see death – we won’t be in any position to worry about it since at that point we will cease to exist forever. Hence, we should focus on things that matter to us most now. There is no afterlife, which is why it is even more important to us than religious people to cherish our loved ones and our memories in this lifetime. There is no turning back, we can only do it this once.

    We, as atheist’s, don’t have any false hopes, nor do we need any. We don’t need to waste time going to church, obeying a fake God, or praying–we need to just focus on LIVING. No need to sugar coat death or invent a hell. No need to believe a fairy tale to live life. We should respect fellow atheist’s for their unbelief, as it can be the harder route to go when it comes to death.

    I only hope those who are unbelievers do the same. Being an atheist takes an enormous amount of courage. As a younger atheist, I hope I can live my life to the fullest by watching closely what those older and closer to death do. That is my hope, and is all I need.

    Thank you Bruce, for being so brave with your unbelief on this blog. I can’t imagine how losing all those friends and turning away from something you felt so strong about for so many years must feel. Just keep on living! I only hope I can also do the same in my life. Thanks again!

    • Avatar
      Angiep

      “We should respect fellow atheist’s for their unbelief, as it can be the harder route to go when it comes to death.” Actually, for me, the opposite is true. True, I don’t have the hope that Christians have of seeing my loved ones in an afterlife, but I don’t fear death and judgment and hell like they do. Not having those threats over me makes both life and death easier, in my opinion. In addition, I don’t fear that my loved ones will end up in hell. It’s Occam’s razor comforting me by reinforcing the essential simplicities of the universe.

      • Avatar
        Kenneth

        I agree, but some coming out of extreme fundamentalism may have difficulty “adjusting” to unbelief (not me personally). When it comes to death, unbelief can seem more difficult for some without a “crutch” to hang on to. No happy feel-good scriptures to hang on to either. Hell definitely seems worse than nothingness though, if one were to believe that. I guess as an atheist, I don’t believe in hell and am used to it, so I failed to even think of that….

  2. Avatar
    Geoff

    It’s a fact. I’m 62, 63 in January. I spent most of my life in denial about old age and dying, the nearest I got being along the lines of ‘well I’m only a quarter of the age I might expect to die’, etc. Of course, once you get to more than half of realistic life expectancy (which I’m now approaching, lol!), then there’s a doubling effect; more time gone and less to go.

    Well there it is. I spent 13.7bn years in a state equivalent to being dead, so why worry? Yes it’s difficult to think of those we care for being left behind but, in reality, how significant has the loss of other people really been in the long term (and I speak as someone who lost my first wife very suddenly after 26 years of marriage)? We grieve, for sure, and we miss them, but we pick up the pieces and get on with our lives. Just as those we leave behind will do for us. Pretending there’s something more after we die is either delusional or cowardly. I really can’t decide.

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I think of this poem from Jane Kenyon:

    Otherwise

    I got out of bed
    on two strong legs.
    It might have been
    otherwise. I ate
    cereal, sweet
    milk, ripe, flawless
    peach. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I took the dog uphill
    to the birch wood.
    All morning I did
    the work I love.
    At noon I lay down
    with my mate. It might
    have been otherwise.
    We ate dinner together
    at a table with silver
    candlesticks. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I slept in a bed
    in a room with paintings
    on the walls, and
    planned another day
    just like this day.
    But one day, I know,
    it will be otherwise.

    One day it will be otherwise, for all of us. All we can do is live another day like this one, or better.

  4. Avatar
    BJW

    I feel this Bruce and feel for you. I, too have days where I think, “If I have to feel this way every day, I’d rather not.” I’m so sorry about you selling your cameras. You did wonderful pics. Couldn’t you have picked one to take any pictures if you got a yen? Anyway, it’s good you still have some hobbies.

    Anyway…HUGS

  5. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Bruce, I am sorry to hear that you sold your photography equipment. I am also sorry for the pain you feel each day. There’s courage in living life. There’s courage in knowing when it’s time to let go of parts of it. There’s courage.

    I have 2 people close to me who have attempted suicide. Another person close to me succeeded. Several other people close to me endured to a natural bitter end. The longer I live, the more I can understand the courage in all those scenarios. I don’t know which one will be the one for me. Maybe none of them as a choice may be made for me. I try not to think if it too much, beyond trying to do my best now.

    It is comforting not worrying about being judged by a deity in an afterlife. It is comforting knowing that my life is my own in which to make choices.

  6. Avatar
    dale m.

    You shipped of all your photography equipment off to KEH in Georgia. You are simply passing the torch. It is a very nice thing to do. You’ve once again made someone else’s life more fulfilling. We all must and should do that. As we age, we become the gift givers to those that have not. Think of it in those terms.

  7. Avatar
    GeoffT

    The photography thing really got to me, because it’s something I’ve associated with you through the years. I hadn’t appreciated how hard it had become. Best wishes from another oldie!

  8. Avatar
    Troy

    Since the original article was from 2015, I’m curious did you sell you professional camera equipment in 2015 or 2022? Either way I’m sorry you had to give it up.

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Bruce Gerencser