(2 minute read)
The next time you hear about a friend or relative dying, pay attention to the way the conversation goes. If it’s a death from the big killers that can get anyone — cancer, heart disease or stroke — there’s a pretty good chance that at some point someone (maybe even you) will ask a question like this:
Was he overweight?
Did she smoke?
Did he exercise?
Did she drink a lot?
Did he take care of his health?
Did she go for regular physical checkups?
Was he under a lot of stress?
Did she have high cholesterol or blood pressure?
How old was he?
Even if the conversation doesn’t go there, if you look at your own thinking, I’ll bet some of these questions cross your own mind. It certainly happens to me: When I heard about a previous colleague having had a stroke, I remember thinking about the fact that he was an angry man who felt badly treated by the world and imagining how much stress that put on his arteries. I also noted that in other ways he was as healthy or healthier than me: he exercised, kept his weight down, rarely drank, didn’t smoke and carefully monitored his health. And he wasn't much older than me. But I focused mostly on his anger and how that 'must' have contributed to the stroke.
Why should any of this matter? After all, if a person is dead, that’s sad for them as well as for the loved ones they’ve left behind. Why should it make us feel better to know that they were 300 pounds, smoked like a chimney, never saw the inside of a gym, drank like a fish and hadn’t seen a doctor in years?
And the truth is that it does make us feel better to know these negative details about the other person’s life. Why? Because it means that we’re different.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine you had an identical twin who had exactly the same lifestyle as you: the same weight, exercise pattern, consumption habits, health issues. And that twin suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack or a stroke. Pretty scary, huh? Hard to avoid the thought that the same thing might happen to you tomorrow?
Now imagine the same situation, except that your identical twin had a very non-identical life: he or she smoked, drank and ate more than you, exercised less, didn’t go for physicals, was highly stressed and didn’t control their blood pressure or cholesterol. Your twin’s death would be terribly sad, but maybe not quite as scary. Your situation is very different, and so your twin’s death means nothing about when YOU are going to die.
And that is the fear that underlies these questions. It’s not that we’re trying to find out what the deceased did wrong that caused them to expire. It’s that we’re trying to find what they did differently from us that caused them to expire.
We’re all walking around fully aware that someday we’re going to die, but at the same time not thinking about it, and not letting that fact affect our daily life. But when someone similar to us dies, we’re forced to confront the fact that it will happen to us too, sooner or later. And our attempt to find differences between us and the unfortunate deceased is just our way of putting that genie back in the bottle — and going on feeling a bit immortal.