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there is no time left by Vincent H. '23

musings on death and the future

tw: mentions of substance abuse, various diseases, death

i have been much more productive over the past few weeks than i usually am. of course there are many reasons for this: i don’t text as much as i used to, i have no classes on tuesdays and thursdays, i’m trying to make progress on 2 research projects so i have no choice but to work a lot, and so on. but i think one other reason that might not be as easy to discern is a change in my relationship with death

last november i read a blog post where the author documents their friend jack’s descent into heroin addiction and eventual death by overdose. it’s probably one of the saddest things i’ve ever read. on some level i already knew what the post would contain before reading it – i knew it would discuss the jack’s depression and lack of motivation, the cycles of therapy and relapse, the emotional and financial cost to family, and so on. but the most chilling part for me was the acknowledgement that jack might have been acting rationally. we tend to think of drug abusers as destroying their own lives, but sometimes peoples’ lives might actually be structured such that the pleasure from drugs is worth the destruction of everything else, from a strictly rational or utilitarian perspective. as the article puts it, “Jack was painfully aware that his future options were, ‘be a complete loser,’ or ‘be a complete loser who feels really really good for a few hours every day.’ He chose the latter.” i think this is a possibility that we don’t explicitly acknowledge often enough in portrayals of addicts because it is extremely unsettling to consider, but i also think failure to recognize this might interfere with effectively helping certain kinds of addicts

i didn’t think about this very hard for a few months, and then in january i read some articles about the opioid crisis. of course i’d seen many news articles about this subject while growing up in the 2010s, but this was the first time i stopped to think about the meaning of each sentence i was reading. what does it actually mean when experts expect a million americans to die from opioid overdoses in the next decade? it means you recall everything you learned about jack and picture yourself in his shoes and think about how that would feel for both yourself and the people you care about, and then you bundle up those feelings and scale them up by ten times, and then you bundle up those feelings and scale them up by ten times, and then you bundle up those feelings and scale them up by ten times, and then you bundle up those feelings and scale them up by ten times, and then you bundle up those feelings and scale them up by ten times, and then you bundle up those feelings and scale them up by ten times. we are desensitized to aggregate narratives and statistics, but when i stopped to actually think through this exercise it was very overwhelming and i started crying. if you have a few minutes and are in a good place mentally and haven’t done something similar before i’d recommend trying it too

anyway, enough about the opioid crisis. in january i was looking for new biology-related projects, so i talked to some anti-aging researchers at mit. then i talked to another undergrad who was looking for new bio research to work on, and they mentioned that they find neurodegenerative disease more motivating to work on than anti-aging. their reasoning was something along the lines of old people dying not being as sad as people forgetting everything and not being able to perform basic actions while still alive

this is a sentiment i agree with, in the sense that neurodegeneration does feel much more terrifying to me than death. the problem with achieving emotional relief through mindfulness or introspection or the like is that it assumes many of your highest-level cognitive processes work properly, and these are probably the first ones to go when your brain begins to deteriorate. i wonder what happens when, for instance, someone who has conquered their depression through cognitive-behavioral therapy begins to lose their mind – do they slip back into depression (that would be profoundly sad, given how hard they’d worked to escape)? or maybe they lose so much brain functionality that they can’t be depressed (and would that really be a happier ending)?

(by the way, i hope i’m not giving you the impression that i ruminate about this stuff needlessly. i don’t think about these topics very often, and when they come up it’s almost always because they directly affect one of my friends)

but anyway, i was looking for projects, and my friend mentioned that, because biology research in poorly-understood areas is so unlikely to succeed, you should focus on problems that you think humanity desperately needs to attempt. that way, you can live with your choices in the event that you fail, since you’ll know that it was necessary for someone to try and fail there. they believe this reasoning applies to deciding to go to grad school as well

a month later i was talking to a friend about how, if i knew i’d live a long and healthy life in a politically stable era, maybe it’d make sense to go into an industry like finance for a few years and make as much money as possible and then spend the rest of my life working on whatever i wanted to. of course, the problem is that i don’t know how many of those years i have left, and it seems foolish to take for granted that the number is large, so if there is something i really want to get around to doing during my lifetime then i should already be starting work on something related to it right now. all this is how i settled on one of my current projects, understanding mental health through web browsing behavior – i don’t expect it to work, but i think it’s a compelling and promising enough idea that someone needs to try it, and i like it a lot so i might as well check it out

my friend’s unironic reply to my complaint about career decisions was, “this is the big problem facing young people today: why save for retirement if the world might end before 2040?”. i used to dismiss sentiments like the above, because whenever i heard someone say “why do _ if the world might end before 2040?” i thought they really meant “why do _ if the world will end before 2040?”, as a justification for impulsive short-term behavior. and for some people, that is the message they want to convey. but for some other people, asking this is their way of voicing a legitimate question – think about your current lifestyle and life plans, and then think about the very real chance that you could die or be in poor health by 2040; is there anything you want to change about your life in light of this possibility? 

so i’ve mentioned substance abuse and neurodegeneration and vague possibilities of early death as different ways by which your life can be derailed. my intent here isn’t to create needless panic or anxiety, but rather to explain how taking the time to consider these things has shifted my perspective

six years ago, waitbutwhy famously published a blog post estimating that, if you’re done with high school, probably around 90% of the time you will ever spend with your parents has already passed. of course the message extends beyond parent-child relationships; the 90% figure probably applies to many of your friends as well. this post suggests that, for those people, we should remember to treat each of our future interactions with them as precious

i think it’s a very touching article, and i also believe that most peoples’ behaviors a month after reading the post are virtually indistinguishable from their behaviors prior to reading it

this is not a knock on the post itself, just an observation that most people are reminded about the distant future and then do nothing meaningfully different afterwards. occasionally something prods us awake and we emerge from the dream of having time, and then we promptly return to sleep. i think this cycle is one of the major impediments to deliberate personal change

in hell yeah or no, the author suggests that every time you have the choice to take on a new commitment, you should accept it if the commitment is something that elicits a hell yeah reaction within you, and otherwise you should decline it. their argument is basically that we accept too many mediocre roles which occupy our schedules, and as a result we don’t have time to pursue truly exciting opportunities when they come up. when i first read this back in december, i agreed with the author’s point but found it impractical or impossible to implement. it’s analogous to marie kondo’s advice in the life-changing magic of tidying up that you should throw out all your possessions which don’t “spark joy” – very appealing as a theory, very difficult to practice

the problem, i think, is that hell yeah or no is fundamentally an argument about the scarcity of time, and aversion to thinking about negative outcomes like severe illness or car accidents or civil war was giving me the illusion of infinite time. i’m not suggesting the right thing to do is to obsess over these things – most of them are out of my control anyway, so my goal is simply to accept that the risk from these events is significant, and to not forget that they exist

this is the backdrop in which i have been thinking about work and people and everything else. the acute awareness that there is no time left means that i have been looking for what i love about each of the things i choose to spend time on and throwing out the activities for which nothing comes to mind. this is the context through which i have found focus in longer work hours and more meaningful social connection and more consistent fulfillment. it is not saddening, it is not frightening, it is not anxiety-inducing; it is freeing, it is empowering, it is the closest i have ever gotten to truly understanding hell yeah or no