A new film plays with an idea of life in which humans have a clock on their arm with the time they have left to live decreasing by the passing moment. This is science fiction but it is possible for any individual person to have extensive DNA testing to reveal a picture of likely long term outcomes. For example it is possible to find out whether you have the mutation gene that will mean you will probably develop Parkinson’s disease, as one CEO of a medical technology company discovered. When asked if he would have preferred not to have known he argued that he still felt it was worth it, not least because he discovered other things that were important for his children to know, that might mean they could avoid some dangers.
If we were asked, would we prefer to know the moment of our death, how would we answer? Would that knowledge enable us to live life better in the meantime or would we be unable to enjoy the moments we had? Perhaps the Church pews, synagogue and other places of worship would be fuller as a result.
It could be argued that we live in an imaginative space. In that space we pretend we are immortal, that we can never die and that life will go on indefinitely. Is this unreasonable? Surely we cannot live life while constantly thinking about the end of days. We must attend to the experience of life that we have. However, do we kid ourselves we will never die, and hide away from that reality?
Religions have sometimes been accused of feeding a pretence, with the promise of eternal life, heaven or rebirth. But that is not a full picture. Religion is full of reflections on the harder experiences of life. In Buddhism, for example, the recognition of impermanence, suffering and death, and the exercise of detachment are seen as necessary stages of development. In the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) a glance at the psalms show reflections of a much more realistic encounter with the realities of life (for instance see Psalm 17 or 140). Here we hear the prayers of the ancient Israelites, much read throughout the ages, perhaps because they seem to capture the experience of the struggle of life, as well as hopes for the future. These sources provide consolation, say the things we may find hard to say, and perhaps offer some hope to face the impossible challenges life may present us.
What all of the religions point to is a need to prepare spiritually to face the ultimate questions life throws at us, but also to be mindful and attentive to the present moment. In Buddhism this is captured by the idea of mindfulness. In Christianity there is a sense of the importance and sanctity of each moment of life that we have. Somehow a balance must be struck between living life to the full and preparing to meet the challenges of life and the transition to whatever there might be after this life.