Watching the Clock

Excerpt from "Reframing Our Relationship to That We Don’t Control" an On Being conversation with B. J. Miller and Krista Tippett (Jan. 23, 2016):

Heidegger and others have talked about our relationship to time as foundational for the human experience, and that makes sense to me.


Because we have this weird facility to imagine the future and remember the past. And right there, that set us up to have some relationship to the clock.

As conscious human beings, we know we die, and we therefore know our clock ends on, some level. So time just seems foundational.

And I think a lot of the gymnastics that we do as human beings has to do with our relationship to the clock, or lack of a relationship to the clock. We squander time until it’s too late, et cetera.

I love looking at the building blocks, the raw material, the irreducibles.

So space and time are two components that I want to feel and I want to work with. And watching the clock is, I think, a big part of my job as a palliative care and hospice doc. 

It’s tricky, but I don’t want to have our systems predetermined that we fade out. I don’t want to have our systems designed and predetermined that I peak in my life when I’m most productive.

So when there’s ever a moment to design the context, to create the construct, I want to make sure we take that very, very seriously, and don’t accidentally predetermine misery that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. That’s really what I’m calling for.

We can’t all experience aging and dying as a crescendo, but if we make space for that possibility, then it’s much more likely to happen.

And I do think as your body ceases to be your best friend as this painless agent that takes you all over the planet, as your mind may fade, there is always something, whether it’s a sense of smell or touch or a thought, there’s something living in you until you are dead. 

One of the conceptual things — it sounds kind of silly, but I love saying this to students — dying people are living.

We talk about “the dying” as though they’re some other species over in the corner. We are the dying, and seeing ourselves in that mix is very fruitful in a number of ways, but it also allows us to see dying as a part of living. And therefore, we can design that as an experience.

For me, it gets very interesting to define death.

What is death to me?

There is a legal definition of that. I cease to have any cardiovascular function, and my brain no longer talks to my body, or whatever. There are clinical ways so that my doctor and my lawyer can pronounce me dead, but when am I — for my own purposes, when am I dead? When am I really done with this life?

I don’t know.

We’ll see as I get closer to it, but from where I sit, at this point I’m very clear — when I can no longer sense anything, whenever I can no longer take in the world around me in any way, then I’m dead.

And that brings me back to this life of the senses and the immediacy of the senses.

And the one thing I know is that the body dies. This body dies, and this body is just a big sack of sensors.