If Tomorrow Comes
HANGING AROUND with someone in her nineties, you can’t help thinking a lot about mortality. You wonder how much time they have left, and then, inevitably, how much time you have. I always kinda knew my odds of reaching Olga’s age are low. But I didn’t know how low until I took a peek at the actuarial tables.
Simple versions of these are available on-line. You plug in age, gender and some pertinent lifestyle habits, and then you sit back, holding your breath, as the computer comes up with a number. A sobering one.
The odds that I will live to Olga’s age are . . . around three percent. Where she is, I will very likely never go.
There’s another number you can calculate that’s in some sense even more interesting. Actuaries have an expression they call “the force of mortality.” What it means is “the fraction of people who will not reach their next birthday.”
Better news here: the odds that I will not be here in a year’s time are only about one half of one percent. The odds that Olga will not be here in a year are somewhere around 20 percent.
Of course, it’s likely to be significantly lower than that, since it’s based on a typical 94-year-old woman, and Olga is anything but typical. I’d be surprised if, for Olga, the actual odds are even ten percent. Let’s say they’re five percent.
Even at that, I have ten times as much chance as Olga does of not having my birthday-dinner reservation cancelled because I died. My sword of Damocles is hanging by a string; hers is hanging by a thread. I wonder: does knowing these numbers change the way we live? Does it help us, you know, enjoy every sandwich?
Life is precious and evanescent: I think we know that without crunching any numbers.
In an old joke, a priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing what they’d like people to say after they die and their bodies are on display in open caskets.
The priest says, “I’d like someone to say, ‘He was rightous, honest and generous.”
The minister says, “I’d like someone to say, He was kind and fair, and he was good to his parishioners.”
The rabbi says, “I’d want someone to say, Look, he’s moving.’