A Matter of Days

By | February 14, 2014

sunrise-at-haleakalaLet me tell you something important about your life. This is something that you know to be true about your life, but maybe you haven’t thought about it in a while, or maybe you have never thought about it in exactly these terms.

Your life is a matter of days.

So is mine. So is everybody’s. Here’s how you can demonstrate this for yourself. Do a web search on the phrase “life expectancy calculator” and find one you like. You will be asked some questions about your lifestyle, your parents, etc. and the calculator will spit out a result: your life expectancy. From there you can quickly calculate your expected date of – well, you know.

Now do another search, this time on the phrase “calculate days between two dates.” This will provide a list of sites where you can enter your birth date in the field on the left and your…expiration date in the field on the right, push the button and voila! You get the total number of days you can expect to live.

I did this exercise myself and found that I’m good for 86.3 years. At least that was the first answer I got. I had some doubts about the accuracy of that life expectancy calculator, however, so I tried a second one and got 79.3 years. Not thrilled with the trend, I decided to forego trying any further life expectancy calculators and just work with the data points that I had.

The first estimate of 86.3 years means my life will comprise some 31,510 days. The second estimate gave me 28,954 days, which still seems like quite a few. As of this writing, I have lived 18,975 days — which means that I have burned 59.6% or 64.9% of my total days, depending on which estimate I choose to go with. Being an optimist, I read this as telling me that I still have 35-40% of my days remaining. That’s quite a few days, and I intend to make good use of them.

​It isn’t just our lives that are a matter of days. The future is a matter of days. Everything we hope to achieve, everything that makes up our greatest dreams and aspirations, and moreover, everything that we fear, that we dread, that we’re trying to avoid – everything that is ever going to happen, if it does in fact happen – it’s a matter of days until it does.

Goals and projects are also a matter of days. Consider some of the big accomplishments of the previous century. Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco began on January 5, 1933. On May 27, 1937 the bridge opened for business. That’s 1,603 days. On May 25, 1961, JFK declared the goal of sending a man to the moon; Apollo 11 landed on July 20, 1969. That’s 2,978 days. The Human Genome Project started in 1990 and concluded in February, 2001, spanning roughly 4,049 Days.

My total days lived to date, 18,975 days, far outnumber the days required to perform any of these tasks. Of course we know that big projects can be completed within our lifetimes. And now we know one of the reasons this is true – it’s because we have enough days!

One objection to this line of reasoning is that saying life is a matter of days is really just saying that life is a matter of time. Yes, that is true. Other measurements of time are equally valid in terms of stating duration.

Days are special, however. The day is the smallest unit of time we have that completes an arc, or tells a story. Like a lifetime, a day has a beginning, a middle, and end. Other units of time work this way, too. Weeks, months, and years all tell a story. But none of the shorter units do. An hour is just a collection of 60 minutes; a minute is just a collection of 60 seconds.

A day is the smallest unit of a lifetime that bears the same structure as a lifetime.

​Another reason days are special is because we have (seemingly) a lot of them, and it is therefore easy to lose track of them. There’s a money management exercise wherein you take your paycheck in the form of dollar bills and actually lay out stacks of ones to represent each of your monthly expenses. It’s a great way to visualize where your money is going.

Seeing your life in terms of days is also a way of getting a handle on one of your most precious assets. Where are all those days going?

Someone might tell you that they spent two years training for a marathon, or that they dated their S.O. for four years before getting married, or that they spent six years working on their PhD. That’s 700, 1,500, and 2,200 days, respectively. That’s a lot of units, a lot of little lifetimes. But it all seemed worth it.

The issue becomes more pointed when we start counting up the days that have been devoted to things we don’t like, or are not happy with.

For example, you might ask how long have you…

…been overweight?

…been in a relationship that’s going nowhere?

…been working at a job that I can’t stand?

It’s sad to think of these kinds of things in terms of years, but when you add up the days, it can be heartbreaking. Or motivating. Once you realize that you’ve spent more days in living in a house you don’t like than it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge, isn’t it time to do something about it? After all, we get only so many days and then we’re through.

And that raises a perfectly rational question: do I have enough? In my own case, as I noted above, 31,510 sounds better than 28,954. But, hey, 50,000 days sounds better than either of those, doesn’t it? And then why not 100,00? Or more?

Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it this way. “I want to live one more day. Tomorrow I will still want to live one more day.”  If we’re enjoying our lives – if we’re doing important or at least meaningful things with them – isn’t that the right formula? The problem is, the days run out before we run out of good things to do with them.

​But maybe it doesn’t have to work that way.

Life extension researcher and advocate Aubrey de Grey talks about a coming time of “actuarial escape velocity” – when each year we can add a year to human life expectancy. If that happens, we are looking at an unlimited number of days.

The trick is, you need enough days to reach that point. And actuarial escape velocity isn’t the only thing we have to look forward to. As a futurist who is deeply committed to a positive view of our next possible steps, I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask the following questions?

How long is it until…

…no one on Earth is hungry?

…death by any form of disease is eliminated?

…we travel to the stars?

…we meet other intelligent life forms?

…we truly understand the mysteries of the universe?

We fulfill an amazing and glorious destiny that right now we can’t even imagine?

If any of these things are, in fact, going to happen, it’s simply a matter of days.

​So my idea to transform the world is to get people thinking about their lives and the future and the things that need to be done in terms of days. How can we make better use of the days we have? How can we increase the total number of days we have to look forward to? And how can decrease the number of days between where we are now and our most cherished hopes and dreams?

​My first step in spreading the word is, having written this piece, to set up a website to serve as a resource to help people understand the importance of valuing days as a critical unit of time. I have just acquired the domain amatterofdays.com. At that site we will explore how we can each make the best use of our own days, how we can generate more days, and how we can reduce the number of days between today and that day we are most looking forward to.

NOTE: This essay is my submission to The World Transformed: the Abridged Edition. For more information on the book project (including how you might participate) see the video below.

  • David Gobel

    You’re channeling your inner Moses here :-) who said: “So teach [us] to number our days, that we may acquire a wise heart.”

    Psalms 90:12

  • Gary Cunningham

    We are, all of us, immortal. You can count the number of days your mortal body will continue in it’s present state but not the personality within it.