“Your Whole Life Is Borrowed Time”
by David Cain
“I can’t remember if this is a real movie plot, or if I just want it to be. A man with a boring job is on his way to work when his attention is caught by some unexpected detail in his otherwise familiar routine – a peculiar insect, a pattern in the concrete, a cryptic slogan on a t-shirt. This detail seems extremely significant to him, but he doesn’t know why.
The strange sight wakes him up from the autopilot-mode by which he has been living his life. He is suddenly aware, for the first time, how complex and interesting his local high street is, and he stops to take it in. Around him pass hundreds of distinctly different people, each a unique individual, driven by some unseen personal motivation. Shops are filled with thousands of trinkets, tools, snacks, and books. Delivery trucks roll past, music plays from somewhere, buildings rise above him. The scene is miraculous to him.
As he surveys the street, he witnesses something surreal: another version of himself is walking away from him, towards his usual bus stop, evidently not having had this same moment of self-awareness. For reasons he is never told, at that moment his life had apparently split in two. However, his double does not make it onto the bus: as he waits, an air conditioning unit falls from a window above, killing him instantly. In a very unexpected and unstorylike way, his life ends.
The man has no idea what has happened, and never receives an explanation. The authorities never identify the person beneath the air conditioner, and the man never tells anyone what he witnessed because nobody would ever believe it. There is nothing to do but carry on with his life. But he is a changed man.
Every morning he is amazed to find another whole day awaiting him. Every meal, every phone call, every greeting from his doorman feels like an undeserved gift, as though he’d mistakenly been given the honeymoon suite at a hotel. He feels grateful even for his problems.
None of the details of his life have changed, except one thing. He now lives with an awareness that he was never truly entitled to be alive; he just happened to be, and still is. His ability to breathe, see, feel, and make choices now seems to him like an unearned, arbitrary status- one that he may freely enjoy, but which can be revoked at any time without explanation. He hopes he never loses this sense that his life is essentially a bonus round, consisting entirely of borrowed time, not just from the day of his strange experience, but from the beginning.
I once attended a networking event for entrepreneurs, in Toronto. The host had booked a private room beneath a restaurant in Greektown. I was early, so I spent some time in a nearby park, then checked out the shops and restaurants on Danforth Avenue. I stopped in front of a church to tie my shoe. I remember being nervous about meeting a bunch of new people. Of course, it went fine and I had a good time. I had interesting conversations with entrepreneurs in all sorts of spaces: fitness, web development, beard grooming, venture capital. The food was excellent.
The experience was distant enough from my normal routine that, during the event, I was struck by how easily we find ourselves in moments we could not have pictured. For all the certainty we feel when we plan for (or ruminate about) the future, life unfolds in ways that are ultimately unpredictable. We just end up places. Two weeks after that event, a deranged man with a gun walked down the same stretch of Danforth Avenue and shot fourteen people at random, then shot himself.
I don’t mean to sound dramatic. It wasn’t a close call, at least for me. I’m sure a hundred thousand people walked down that stretch of road in the weeks surrounding the incident. There are people who literally dodged the bullets. But when I watched videos of eye-witness accounts, including some in front of the church where I tied my shoes and the corner where I nervously loitered, it gave me a vital bit of perspective: I happen to be alive, and there’s no cosmic law entitling me to that status. Being alive is just happenstance, and not one more day of it is guaranteed.
This thought instantly relieved me of any angst over that particular day’s troubles: technical issues on my website, an unexpected major expense, an acute sense that I’m getting old. Those problems remained, and they are real problems. But they immediately became only relatively important. They lost their sense of absolute importance. In fact, any personal problem I could think of now seemed to be a small, aesthetic complaint about the grand, mysterious gift of being randomly, unfairly alive that day.
This perspective made it easy to tackle the problems I could, and live at peace with the others, all with a breezy sense that this is just a bonus round anyway. Despite the awful news, it was a productive and enjoyable day, and I would like to live all my days that way. That was a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the breezy feeling now comes and goes – too many years of seeing my latest dilemma as absolutely important, rather than just relatively important.
This “I could be dead” perspective isn’t a sentimental thinking exercise. I think it’s a more honest view of our ever-tentative situation, one that respects the impersonal, flippant way in which fate handles our lives. The shooting just forced me to see my day in that way, but a random crime is only one of many possible (and still possible) endings. There are always speeding cars, rare diseases, gas explosions, and treacherous stairwells. And none of these events, when they do happen, are negotiable.
The universe is not at all sentimental – aliveness is always going to be an arbitrary status that can be revoked at any time. No recourse, no due process.
Equally mysterious is that our lives began at all. As my favorite philosopher, Douglas Harding, tried to remind us before he died: “It’s the very last thing, isn’t it, that we feel grateful for: having happened. You know, you needn’t have happened. You needn’t have happened. But you did happen.”
And we needn’t still be happening. But we are. I suppose the trick is to remember that fact even in the throes of our worst moods and toughest dilemmas. Maybe I’ll get a reminder tattooed on my wrist, for whenever my complaints start to seem absolutely important: This is borrowed time, all of it. Would you rather give it back?”