“Your days are numbered!”
That’s what my uncle’s doctor told him about 2 years before he died. He was 80. In truth, he’d probably heard those words from his doctor a number of times because of his eating and smoking habits.
When I hear those words, I have a deep, gut reaction — an uneasiness comes over me, if only for an instant. I don’t like to think about time limits, whether it’s the amount of time I’m given to complete a task (or a test) or the time I have left to live. But the reality is life is full of limitations. Our mortality is a given. But the exact temporal parameters for our lives are not. My uncle’s mortality was certainly affected by the onset of several acute and chronic health problems due to his lifestyle. He still lived to be 78, which seemed remarkable considering. On the other hand, our son’s best friend, Joey, died from cancer as a young adult, due mostly to genetics.
I can easily hear a parent telling their adult child with poor eating habits, or a doctor telling her patient with a drinking problem or predisposed genetic condition or an ad from the American Cancer Society warning a viewer with a nicotine addiction — “your days are numbered.” But the poet of Psalm 90 seems to bring this anxiety to a more general, universal audience, healthy lifestyle or not, and with just as desperate a tone.
“For all our days pass away under your gaze,
our years come to an end like a sigh,
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away…” (Ps 90:9-10)
Yep. Our days are numbered. Life passes in the blink of an eye. Soon we’ll hit the final moment. “Become extinct, pushing up daisies,” as Dr. Patch Adams says to a patient with cancer in the movie. “To be defunct, dead as a doornail, the big sleep, the last breath, worm buffet, the exceptionally long blink…”
You’re still reading? I’d have probably moved on to Pinterest by now (or maybe WebMD…). But if we read a little further down, the Psalmist adds:
“Teach us to number our days
that we may gain a wise heart.”(vs.12)
The Psalmist suddenly reframes the way to look at this mortality. The root meanings for the word “wise” are: “seeing”, “a way of proceeding” and “attentiveness”. To gain a wise heart is to learn how to see our days, to be attentive to our days, to have a way of proceeding day to day. Finitude is a reality. But so is the presence of the eternal, the presence of God, the ineffable wonder of creation, in our midst. Is each new day one step closer to the end? Or is each new day one more beginning? Is each new day one more task, one more job till retirement, one more stress, one more deadline? Or is each new day an opportunity, an invitation to discovery, to sharing and reflecting wonder?
Reframing how we think about our daily existence seems to be what the Psalmist is trying to get at — numbering our days as invitations, as opportunities for participating in wonder and grace.
One of our older son’s best friends experienced three or four cancers in his short lifetime, from his retinal cancer at 2 years of age to the bone marrow cancer that he died from as a young adult. But throughout his life, he seemed to number his days with gratitude, kindness and as much mischief and adventure as he could share with others. One Halloween, while “trick-or-treating” with Joey and our kids in the neighborhood, the boys approached a neighbor’s door and knocked. The man came out with a mask on and those googly eyes on springs and moaned, “Ooohhh, boys, what do you think of my eyes?” Without hesitation, Joey pulled his prosthetic glass eye out of his eye socket and said, “Ooooh. What do you think about mine?” It stopped the man speechless. And we couldn’t stop laughing. Of course, he was very generous with the candy, too.
Yep. Our days are numbered. So, teach us to number our days, that we may be attentive, aware and filled with wonder and grace and kindness (and just enough mischief to inspire others).