By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

The Gift of Mortality

When I was fifteen, a blood test revealed that I was a carrier for the disease that had killed my father less than a year earlier. Two years later, my grandfather died of the same disease.

I have lived with a subconscious sense of urgency ever since. Even though the disease is fully under control in my body and won’t necessarily shorten my lifespan, the reality of my mortality is something I can’t ever deny. The time available to me is scarce. But change and accomplishment seem to come far too slowly. I can’t help but feel harried in my professional life, my parenting, my relationships, and my own personal transformation.

I just need more time, I often think to myself. More time in a day, more time in a lifetime.

A few months ago, my husband asked me, “If you had the chance, would you want to live for 1,000 years?” He wasn’t speaking hypothetically. Some of the brightest minds and richest investors in the world are trying to solve the problem of death. The hopeful among them think we can cure all diseases, disabilities, and even aging itself by as soon as 2045, extending the human lifespan by hundreds of years.

Surprisingly, my answer was a resounding no. I could be free of my disease, free to pursue all the opportunities I want, free of that sense of urgency — but still, no. My husband (the optimist in the family) dreams of all he could do and experience in a millennium. But I (the pessimist) find that I have no such yearnings. I would be happy to forego a Methuselah-like lifespan if I could avoid bearing witness to another few centuries’ worth of war, inequality, and environmental destruction. I’m pretty sure my soul, even if housed in a healthy body and digitally supported mind, couldn’t bear it.

But my husband is a very persuasive person, and his arguments (“Think of all the amazing new innovations we’ll get to see!”) as well as his entreaties (“How could you abandon me after just one century?”) have made me waver.

After all, isn’t more time exactly what I want?

Recently, in an effort to conclusively settle the score, we’ve begun asking some friends the thousand-year question. The resulting discussions have been provocative and illuminating, revealing much about our friends’ viewpoints and values. Some have worried about the sustainability of perennial humans on our poor, strained earth. Others have wondered about the durability of institutions like marriage and family if we had to be stuck with the same people for so many centuries.

In the end, most of our friends have shaken their heads slowly, as surprised as I am that they don’t want to have an essentially limitless lifespan on this planet.

In the gospels, Jesus explicitly warns us that our stint on earth is limited. “Therefore keep watch,” he says in Matthew 24, “because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” After using the analogy of a homeowner who watches for a thief to prevent a break-in, he urges, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” In the following chapter, Jesus counsels his disciples to live well with their limited time: to be prepared, to be faithful to their work, to be responsible stewards, and to be compassionate and generous to those in need.

As I’ve pondered this, I’ve come to the startling conclusion that living well goes hand in hand with living a mortal life. As one of our friends put it, a centuries-long life would diminish the value of each day, each year, even each decade. Urgency would vanish — but so would priorities. There would be little reason to do anything any time soon, no push to experience newness or transformation or tell others that we love them. After all, we’d have another few hundred years to get to it.

An abundance of time means that time no longer has any value. Or, put another way: only when we are intimately acquainted with the finite and ephemeral can we truly appreciate what is infinite and eternal.

As a result, I’ve begun to see my mortality as, of all things, a gift. That’s not to say that I want to die any time soon, or that I’d wish a shorter lifespan on anyone else. But that nagging urgency I feel reminds me that I only have a limited time to do whatever it is I have been placed on this earth to do. It is actually a wonderful motivator — driving me, focusing my energy, encouraging me to hold what is most important close to my heart.

I don’t have all the time in the world to do what I want to do, but I’m increasingly feeling like that’s fine by me. Instead of yearning for the long life I may never attain, I can be deeply grateful for what time I have been given. God only asks that I live this finite life well; the rest of eternity is in his hands.

About the Author
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and leader whose work with various nonprofits, social enterprises, and faith-based organizations has given her opportunity to engage with a broad range of social issues toward solutions in the areas of homelessness, affordable housing, energy access, youth leadership, HIV/AIDS, and international development. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her social entrepreneur husband and two young sons.
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