Friday, January 29, 2010
Friday Night Riff: Mortality, Wealth 'n Art
Your only obligation is to live and be happy. - Albert Camus
There's that joke about 'if you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.' Thought I'd try to give the Ol' Guy a chuckle.
In the year 2010, the average life expectancy in the United States is seventy-eight years old. Seventy-five if you happen to be male. That's AVERAGE. That would give me 20 more years - IF I live an average life span for a US male in 2010. A hundred years ago, I'd be ancient material at 55. Today, through the miracles of medical technology we've managed to extend that span - at all cost, sometimes at a questionable cost of quality. But that's a whole 'nuther conversation about how in the average last year of life, a person in the US will have 10 specialists involved in the care and management of their humble, mortal chassis.
I heard that daunting statistic the other day. Now, being someone who has had daunting statistics before in my doctor's attempts to define my undefinable life, I tend to place statistics out of my reach; they have NOTHING to do with ME - not when you are an Outlier - someone who skews the statistics. Still, average is average, and as non-average as I'd like to believe I am, I also have enough humility intact to know there is nothing special about me. Still, even with irony thrown in to stack the odds, averages prevail. But the complement of 'average' - on the other side of the tracks - is 'Outlier'.
Which brings me to a favorite art piece I saw in the Toronto Art Museum about average mortality statistics. Okay, hang in there with me; this is more elegant than dreary and frightful. In a window like you might see in a jewelry store - a display window - is a velvet-lined case that holds stacks of gold coins; each one representing a month. So 12 months X 78 average years = 936 gold coins TOTAL. Sounds like a lot. It is. Especially when you consider that there are still parts of the world TODAY where you are old at 40. The average life span today in Swaziland is 39 years - or 468 months oF gold coins; exactly half of what we receive in the US.
Each month the artist visits their on-going, ever-changing art piece at the museum; opens the display window case; removes a coin from the neat stack in the blue velvet lined box and drops it onto the ever-growing pile next to the box - another month of their life gone: another gold coin spent. No returns, no do-overs, no exchanges - and perhaps most importantly - NO Complaint Desk; just a gold coin, a token of something much more precious: a month of life - hopefully spent well on things of value.
The artist makes you stop and think about the preciousness - not just in theoretical terms, but in the coins spent, never to be seen again. When I saw this piece, immediately I did the math adding up the 'average' left for myself, if I GET TO have an average US male lifespan of 75 yrs. That's 20 more years X 12 months equaling 240 gold coins of earthly life. A nice amount; a respectable amount; but still, not a HUGE amount. Rather, a FINITE, limited amount, much smaller than the 660 coins spent so far - approximately one quarter of the original total. IF I get to be average. Maybe I have more; maybe less. I could be spending my last gold coin right now and not even know it.
Lucky me! I have a gold coin in my hand today! Lucky you! You have one in yours also! How many more will I get? Where do I want to spend them? How do I want to spend them? With whom do I want to share the wealth with?
It's a precious gold coin in my hands; could be the last one - or maybe there's a dozen or 500 more left. Don't know, but any way you slice it - the one gold coin in my hand right now?: Precious. The only precious one. The rest of the stack is just a 'maybe', 'hopefully', or 'if I'm lucky.'
But luck's a funny, fickle thing. Everybody thinks they want the quantity of a big stack of coins; everyone thinks they want longevity - a hundred years, please. But if there's any chance of my ending up spending those last twelve months with 10 specialist doctors and hundreds of props as the 'average' US citizen with 'artificially induced longevity' will - PLEASE! Let me be mercifully struck by a random, stray bullet to the heart - perhaps while dancing! I'd prefer it.
But then, just as with jokin' on God with MY plans, I imagine my preferences bring a wry grin to the Mysterious One, also.
Bottom line: In the end, it ain't about how much you had in your stack; it's ALL about how you spent it and how much happiness it brought.