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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

I turned 40 last week. Luckily for me, I got my mid-life crisis out of the way early (in my mid-30s), and this official onset of middle age doesn’t have me as rattled as it could.

There is an old saying that age is “nothing but a number.” It’s certainly a number, yes, but it’s a number that has a pretty solid relationship with how much time you have left on Earth, so I don’t think it’s exactly insignificant.

At 40, I’ve outlived most rock stars, most Neanderthals, and even a couple of Messiahs who started major world religions. I tracked down a few studies on life expectancy over the ages, and was surprised to learn that I’ve also outlived, well, pretty much everyone.

According to fossil and other records, most people in the Paleolithic age lived to be about 33. In the Bronze age, life expectancy was 26. In late medieval England, it was 30, in Edo Japan it was 41, in British India it was 25, and in 1900 the world lifespan average was 31. Halfway through the 20th century, the average life expectancy across the entire globe was 48.

Today, the average world life expectancy is 71.5.

The last number made me realize that I’m not just some ordinary 40-year-old man; I’m actually an incredibly lucky 40-year-old man. Because modern human beings have roamed the planet for 200,000 years, and yet somehow, I managed to be born at the only time in history in which I could reasonably expect to celebrate my 40th birthday with anything other than the eternal silence of the deceased. (On a side note, the writer Voltaire’s last words were: “Now, now, my good man; this is no time to be making enemies,” because he’d been asked by a priest to renounce Satan on his deathbed.)

Even as recently as when my own parents were born, the average life expectancy wouldn’t have gotten me out of my 40s. As I pondered this last night, I switched on the television and started flipping through Netflix, looking for something to watch. It seemed like nearly every movie was a two-hour, multi-million-dollar attempt to make me feel bad about the times in which we live. Things designed to make people worry and fret about how unfortunate we are to live here, now. The titles were always different, creative ways of expressing ennui–things like “Fat, sick, & nearly dead” or “Bummer!” or “Awww!!”

Most of my friends are reaching middle age now, too, and I’m surprised by how entitled to life they feel. Everyone expects to live to be 80, and anything less than that will feel like an enormous rip-off to them. They fully expect to live another 40 years, most of it spent thinking about what terrible times we live in, I assume. I currently hope to live to be about 208, primarily because I love being alive. But I certainly don’t expect it or think I deserve it.

Most of the people who ever lived are now and forever dead, and I think just to live, even for a moment, makes each and every one of us incredibly lucky. The dead are dead forever, but we are alive right now. Yet with the blessing of this gift comes the knowledge that it will one day break and collapse into dust. Like when we brought home a puppy for our daughter and I had to shoo away a sinister thought from my brain: “Here is a thing that will someday die.”

It recently became fashionable to lament not only our own lives, but also the lives of our children. It’s not fair to bring children into this world–a world where everyone lives so long it might as well have been forever to all the people who came before us–they worry. And worse than that, I keep hearing people say that having children is a “burden” on those who did it and even to the children themselves. Nonsense. This is inarguably the best time in human history to be alive. We’re flush with problems, obviously, but we are all here to grapple with them.

Because all the money and time that get thrown at these little children will all lose any meaning when we die. When you get a paycheck, you can think like I did with the puppy, and go: “Here’s some money that will eventually be gone.” Or you can feel it in your pocket for a moment, just a moment, and feel okay. Because moments are by their very nature short, but they go on in an unbroken chain, from the very first human to the very last, in something that is long and exciting and full of grandeur.

To be a human being is to be part of an infinite Russian nesting doll. Imagine one of those vividly painted and shellacked bulbous figured, in which sits another, slightly smaller figure, under which sits a smaller one, and so on. As the biggest dolls fall away, fresh, little ones are revealed. Yet unlike a traditional nesting doll, this one is eternal, and there is always a smaller doll waiting inside the belly of the one that comes before it. I used to be deep within, protected from the harsh outer world by layer upon layer. As I grow up, I get closer and closer to the exterior. Someday, I’ll be on the outside, bearing the full brunt of the sun and the world’s problems, existentially obese in my old age, and then I too will fall away, and those who come after will emerge. And so it goes, for ever and ever. For all of us, from an elderly 20-year-old in the Middle Ages, to me and you, are part of a single, unbroken chain that stretches back 200,000 years. Each of us a brightly-painted doll that first lives deep within those that come before us, then gradually emerges into the light, then falls to the wayside, at the age of 15 or 105, making way for all that is yet to come. 

*Here’s another fact: children born in the Neolithic age had only a 0.6, not six percent, but rather zero-point-six percent, chance of living long enough to celebrate a 15th birthday.

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