Today we travel to a future where it’s possible to know exactly when you will die. Do you chose to find out?
Now, this is, impossible. Totally impossible. And I’m not even going to try and come up with some strange pseudoscientific explanation for how this might happen. It’s not a thing. Just go with me here. Some people asked for more weird episodes this season, so, here you go!
We start the episode talking to Chanel Reynolds, the founder of a site called Get Your Shit Together which helps people get their shit together around death and dying. Stuff like: writing a living will, getting it executed, getting disability insurance, putting together an emergency plan, all that shit that, if you’re like me, you do not have together. Chanel started Get Your Shit Together a few years after losing her husband to a sudden accident, and realizing that she really didn’t know what to do, and didn’t have any of her own shit together.
And she tells us about all the reasons it’s good to think about your own death, even if it’s really far away. You never know what might happen, and you don’t want to leave your family, pets and loved ones without a good sense for how you want the end of your life managed.
Then we talk to Sheldon Solomon a professor of psychology at Skidmore College and one of the leading researchers in a field called terror management theory. Terror management theory basically says that we live, all of us, all the time, with this underlying rumble of terror beneath the surface. Terror that we are going to die. Which, we are, at some point. And when we’re reminded of death, that terror bubbles up and impacts our behavior in some not so good ways.
Sheldon has done tons of experiments that show that when you remind someone of their own death, just for a fleeting moment, a tiny reminder, it can make you more racist, xenophobic, hateful, war mongering and rude. They’ve done experiments where they’ve asked people to evaluate ideas or other people after seeing a death reminder. And in tons of experiments they’ve found that death reminders make us worse people. They make Christians dislike Jews more, they make Germans more likely to sit next to other people who look German and away from folks who look not-German, they make Iranians more supportive of suicide bombers and they make Americans more supportive of Trump (seriously).
So, in this future, if we know exactly when we’re going to die, and we think about it all the time, we might turn into horrible people.
There is other research that says that for some people, these effects aren’t as strong, and for some they’re actually positive. But researchers don’t really know what makes someone more likely to become better or worse after being reminded of their own death.
Next we talked to Ryan North, the creator of Dinosaur Comics. Back in 2005, Ryan published an episode of Dinosaur Comics that outlined the premise of the machine of death: you go to the machine, it takes a blood sample, and it spits out a card that sells you how you’re going to die. Maybe it says “poisoned apple,” or “drowned,” or “old age.” Ryan thought it would just be a one off joke, but his friends Matthew Bennardo and David Malki started exploring little short stories based on the premise, and eventually they opened up the idea to general submissions. So far there have been two Machine of Death anthologies, each full of stories about what happens when the machine of death comes to town. They’re really fun, I highly recommend them.
Ryan and I talked about all the weird ways that the option to know your death date might change the world. Does health insurance even make sense anymore? Can you get your kids tested? Should you get your kids tested? Could you make armies of people you knew wouldn’t die that day?
But, it’s easy for us to sit here and ponder about what it might be like to really know when you’re going to die, like it’s this fun thought experiment. But as I was thinking about this I realized that, for some people this isn’t really a fun thought experiment. It’s their life. There are people living right now with what is essentially an expiration date. And I wanted to talk to someone who really knows what it’s like to live thinking about death, all the time. So I called Eva Hagberg Fisher, a writer and critic and historian and teacher.
Eva is the author of the best-selling short memoir of brain disease and love called It’s All In Your Head that was selected as one of the Best of the Year 2013. She has written about literature and addiction for Tin House; her scar tissue for Arcade; Philip Johnson’s oiliness for Art Lies; brain surgery for Guernica. She currently writes a column for Everup about medicine (and feelings) called How to Go To The Doctor, and is working on a book about friendship.
And I called Eva because she really knows what it’s like to live thinking about death all the time. Eva’s medical story is really complicated and in the episode we speed through a lot of it, but basically she’s been diagnosed and un-diagnosed with ovarian cancer, brain cancer, a heart syndrome, ovarian and brain cancer again, a brain lesion, histamine intolerance, the list goes on and on and on. But the tl;dr version is that she really really knows what thinking about death is like. And she doesn’t have a ton of patience for our little thought experiments, because she says it’s just not the same as really living it.
So, what about you? Would you want to know your death date? Could you resist looking? And once you found out, how would you react? Would you try to test the prediction? Would you try to become the ruler of the world to change the calendars so your date never came? Tell me! I’m dying to know. Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Tell me what you think by calling and leaving a voicemail at (347) 927-1425 or by sending a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Special thanks this week to Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Wendy Hari, Sheila Gagne, Kevin Wojtaszek, Jessica Gross. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future! Every episode we travel to a different possible, or not so possible future, and then consult experts about how that future might or might not happen.
A quick note, this week, we say a couple of bad words and we talk a lot about death. Nothing too wild, but, if you don’t want to hear any curse words or hear a lot about dying, maybe skip this one. Okay, let’s start in the year 2055.[[bar sounds, conversation fades up]] Woman 1:So yeah I graduated from law school in the spring, and now I’m working at this NGO and trying to figure out what I really want to do.
Woman 2: That’s really neat. [[Awkward Pause]]
Woman1: So, do you know yet?
Woman2: Do I know what?
Woman1: Your date.
Woman2: Oh, no, I don’t. Do you?
Woman1: Of course! I sent the paperwork in as soon as I heard about it. I totally don’t understand people who don’t want to know.
Woman2: I don’t think I want to know.
Woman1: Why not?
Woman2: I don’t know, it just seems… I don’t want it to take over my life.
Woman1: It hasn’t taken over my life.
Woman2: I mean, what am I supposed to do with this information?
Woman1: What if it said you were going to die tomorrow? Would you even be on this date?
Woman2: No, probably not.
Woman1: Well I’m going to die on August 12th, 2096.
Woman2: Oh wow, so you’ve got a lot of time.
Woman1: Yeah, I don’t have to really start worrying for a couple of years.
Woman2: Does it tell you how you’re going to die?
Woman1: No, it can’t do that, I guess that’s too hard.
Woman2: So when it gets close to August 2094
Woman1: 2096, don’t steal any years away from me!
Woman2: laughs, okay, 2096, I mean, what are you going to do then?
Woman1: Oh I have it all planned out. I’m giving myself a couple of years to just, live like I am now. But on August 12th, 2061, so when I’ve got 30 years left to live, I’m going to make a big spreadsheet of all the things I really care about. I mean, I could make that now but I don’t feel like I really know what I care about yet. Do I want to get married? Have kids? I don’t know! But I think in five years I’ll know, so I’m going to make a big sheet of all the things I want to do, and schedule myself out.
Woman2: So efficient!
Woman1: I think you’re teasing me, but yeah, I guess it’s efficient. So if I want to have kids I’ll schedule it in, and if I want to go to Thailand and Jamaica and Australia I’ll schedule those in. I’ve got plenty of time.
[[pause]] Woman1: I would want to know your date before we went on another date.
Woman2: You literally would not go on another date with me without knowing?
Woman1: No. What if your death date is like, in a month? What if you DIE ON ONE OF OUR DATES
Woman2: Well I’m not getting my date, so I guess this isn’t going to work out.
Woman1: I guess not.
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Dude1: Yo, come here I want to show you something!
Dude2: What is it?
Dude1: Have you seen these?
Dude2: What is this?
Dude1: You haven’t seen these? People are opening up their letters together and filming it.
Dude2: Whoa that seems like a really bad idea.
Dude1: (laughs) Yeah it’s horrible, look at this one.
Dude2: Man this is fucked up.
Dude2: I don’t want to watch this.
Dude: Come on they’re doing it to themselves, nobody has to get their letter.
We never forget the moments that matter most to us. We pin them to our feeds. We share them with everyone we know. And we dream of how to make more of them, no matter how long we’ve got left.
At Yearbook, we can help you build the perfect life with whatever time you have left. A week, a year, a decade, Yearbook is here to make those memories as good as they can be. Our patented data system works in two magical parts. First, our algorithm learns all about you, and matches you with trips, classes, programs and people who are scientifically proven to make you happier. Then, we make sure to schedule those trips in the optimal order based on how much time you have to live them.
Yearbook. Make the most of your time, no matter how much you have left.[[Music fades]]
Rose: Okay, so in this future, you can chose to find out the exact date on which you will die. Now, this is, impossible. Totally impossible. And I’m not even going to try and come up with some strange pseudoscientific explanation for how this might happen. It’s not a thing. Just go with me here.
I wanted to talk about this future because I’m really interested in certainty and uncertainty. So much of the technology I get pitched offers the promise of more information, and, what they really seem to be selling is more certainty about what is going on, what is going to happen. Quantified self apps say they’ll help you track your body and habits to so you can really KNOW what’s going on, you can be certain about the messy weird slushy gross stuff going on inside of you. Advanced medical techniques give patients more certainty that they do, indeed, have the thing their doctors say they have, that their treatments will work, that their path is set by medicine. But the ultimate uncertainty, the thing we cannot control no matter how big our quantified self spreadsheets are, is death. We all could die at any moment! But we don’t like to think about it that way.
A couple of years ago, my grandfather got sick. And he’s been sick since then. It gets a little better, it gets a little worse, recently it’s gotten a lot worse, and we all kind of know that this is probably the end for him. But even though we all kind of know that, nobody is really prepared for it. Nobody ever talked to him about how he wants to live his final days, does he want to be in a nursing home, does he want to be put on life support does he want to be resuscitated?
And this is a really common problem.
Chanel Reynolds: We just don’t really know how to do that, in the states anyway we talk a lot about if we’re going to die, not when we’re going to die. Some people say that it’s bad luck to talk about death, but I’ve found that talking about it doesn’t actually kill you.
Rose: That’s Chanel Reynolds, she’s the founder of a site called Get Your Shit Together, which helps people, get their shit together. Stuff like: writing a living will, getting it executed, getting disability insurance, putting together an emergency plan, all that shit that, if you’re like me, you do not have together.
And Chanel launched this site, and got involved in this whole thing, for, pretty much the most awful reason possible.
Chanel: I find myself here completely by accident to be honest, I mean that pretty literally. My husband was killed in an accident almost seven years ago, and, um, he was hit by a van while he was riding his bicycle. I was at a barbeque with some friends with our five year old son, and I got a phone call that he had been in an accident and it was bad, and I had no idea what was going to happen, I had no idea if he was still alive or not. But I needed to go to the hospital and got there and he was still alive but just barely. And afer a week in the ER and the ICU, I ended up removing medical support because he was not going to be able to come back either physically or mentally, and because we had had some conversations earlier when our son was born, about end of life and living wills, I knew that was not going to be an acceptable quality of life for him. So I did the hardest thing that I think someone can do, and just, let him go.
Rose: Losing your partner to a horrible accident, is, a lot of people’s worst nightmare. But for Chanel the nightmare didn’t just end there. There was all of this other stuff that just kept happening and making something so, so terrible, even worse.
Chanel: The nightmare just kind of kept going for a long long time, not only do you go home and try to tell your child that his pappa’s body died and he won’t be coming home, you also, I was also staring at my late husband’s phone and I didn’t have the password so in the hospital I couldn’t call his dad. Our wills and our living wills were totally done and waiting for me in my inbox, ready to be signed and notarized. They had been there for six months before tha ccident happend and they weren’t elga, they weren’t legally binding, I didn’t know how much insurance we had, I didn’t know whether we had disability insurance or not, so there were just all these really awful awful questions and digging, spending time on the phone with customer service to try to get get my cell phone turned back on because it was in his name. So, the level of suffering and sadness and grief that we experience in our lives is inescapable, but there was this whole level of what I guess I could call optional suffering that happened afterwards that was often the thing that brought me to my knees.
Rose: And Chanel wasn’t ready for it. She was young, she thought they had years and years left to plan for death. And then, there it was. And she was so unprepared.
Chanel: In the ICU within the first 24 hours of the accident I was standing there, and I said to my friend “oh my god I don’t have my shit together at all.”
Rose: And Chanel realized that if she,
Chanel: College educated, english is my first language, extrovert, project manager, kind of bossy woman
Rose: Didn’t have her shit together, then probably a lot of other people also didn’t have their shit together. And, she’s right.
A huge number of Americans don’t have any kind of will or plan for when they die. More than half of the US adult population doesn’t have an estate plan. I didn’t even know what an estate plan WAS until I talked to Chanel. I always just assumed that, I’ve got time. I’m young. I’ll figure it out later when I get old.
When my boyfriend and I adopted a dog last year one of the questions on the survey we had to fill out to determine whether we would be fit dog parents was: if you both die, what happens to the dog. I remember, we looked at eachother and laughed. It seemed like kind of an absurd question. We’re both under thirty. Neither of us was going to die any time soon, right? But, you know, who knows! It could happen! And I’m glad we actually did talk about what would happen to our dog if we died because the last thing I want is for her to wind up back in the shelter we adopted her from.
So, a few years after losing her husband, Chanel put up a little WordPress site with some guides to help people do all the things she didn’t do: write a living will, get disability insurance, have detailed conversations about what each person wants from their end of life care.
If you are having a moment right now, where you’re thinking, “crap, I don’t have my shit together,” you’re not alone. Once Chanel put up the site, it took off.
Chanel: I put it out there, and then millions and millions of people went to the site and downloaded the forms and hopefully that means a lot more people have had conversations and there’s checklists on kitchen tables and more people have their shit together, than before.
Rose: Now, Get Your Shit Together is Chanel’s main project. And she hopes you get your shit together.
Chanel: I mean it should be as easy frankly as unerring a box of puppies to your office but it’s not and nobody knows where to start and people are overwhelmed and so my hope is that talking about these really important things we can figure out a way to do it so that it’s less overwhelming and really give people a place to start.
Rose: So, getting back to the theme of the episode, maybe, if we all knew the date on which we were going to die, we’d be more likely to actually plan for it. Maybe if we all knew our expiration date, we would write our wills and make our plans and just, get our shit together. Maybe.
But it might also have some, less good effects too. It turns out that psychologists have been looking into what reminders of death do to people for a long time. And what they’ve found is that when you’re reminded of your own death, you sort of turn into a monster.
Sheldon Solomon: Death reminders make us demoralized, hateful, war mongering, protofacists plundering the planet, that’s the bad thing.
Rose: That’s Sheldon Solomon, he’s a researcher at Skidmore College and one of the leading scientists in a field that has a really cool name: terror management theory. Terror Management Theory basically says that we live, all of us, all the time, with this underlying rumble of terror beneath the surface. Terror that we are going to die. Which, we are, at some point. And when we’re reminded of death, that terror bubbles up and impacts our behavior in some not so good ways.
Sheldon: What we found in dozens of experiments is that when you’re reminded of your mortality you like people like yourself a lot better and you hate people who are different. So one of our first studies, we had Christian participants either think a bout death or something unpleasant, and then we asked them to evaluate other people who were either Christians or Jews. And in the control condition they didn’t differentiate between people as a function of their religion, but after being reminded of death they liked Christian people more and Jewish people less. And then like, Germans reminded of death sit closer to people who look German and they sit further away from people who look Turkish. Um, Iranians reminded of death become more supportive of suicide bombers.
Rose: And it’s not just Christians or Germans or Iranians, they’ve done tons of these experiments and no matter who it is, they get the same results.
Sheldon: Americans reminded of death become more supportive of the preemtive use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons against countries who don’t threaten us directly.
Rose: Their most recent experiment looked at Donald Trump, who will most likely be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
Sheldon: saying I will make America great again and I’m going to build a big Fence and I’m going to bomb the crap out of Isis. And we just did our first study a few months ago showing that when Americans are reminded of their mortality they become more supportive of Mr. Trump and more likely to vote for him.
Rose: So, in this future, if we know exactly when we’re going to die, and we think about it all the time, we might turn into horrible people.
Sheldon: It makes people hate other people who are different, it makes people sit closer to other people that look like them, it increases how much we smoke and drink and watch television and go shopping, it makes us uncomfortable with our bodies, contemptuous with regard to how we treat the natural environment.
Rose: Now there is other research that is a bit more, hopeful about this. Death reminders can have all of these pretty horrible side effects. But in some cases they can have positive effects too.
Sheldon: So for example there are studies showing that when we’re reminded of death even very subtly we become more generous to charities, although we only do so for those that are helping people in our culture. And then there’s other studies where folks that that are securely attached, when they’re reminded of their mortality, they don’t hate people that are different, but they become more committed to long term and stable relationships. And there’s certainly no harm in becoming more devoted to one’s significant other.
Rose: So some of us will turn into xenophobic, racist, littering jerks. And some of us will turn into charitable loving partners. And Sheldon says that, researchers don’t really know who will react which way. The research says that liberals tend to see more positive effects of death reminders than conservatives, and people with high self esteem tend to be buffered from the negative effects more than people with low self esteem, but it’s impossible to predict which of us exactly will turn into assholes, and which of us won’t.
Sheldon: I’m going to go with I don’t know and probably both. I think that for some people I don’t think it would change a thing, although if you asked me who I wouldn’t be able to predict, I’d need to think about that, but I think there just would be other people who wouldn’t be able to keep their faces away from the number of minutes and seconds that they have left, and that would become a preoccupation almost to the point of fetish, and they would just spend too much of their time trying to come up with a way to keep the meter running just a little bit longer.
Rose: So there is a really real possibility that knowing our death date might turn us into monsters. But even if knowing our death date might have negative conserquences, you know that people will want to find out, some percent of the world of course will want to know their death date.
So I wondered, in this future, could those of us who want to know, go to some kind of death therapy before we open our letter? To prepare us for the information, and to maybe reduce some of the really bad things that thinking about our own death can do to us.
Sheldon: To be silly, if I could answer that one I’d be chugging rum out of a coconut on the beach with my Nobel Prize, because I do I think that’s a high dollar question. Yeah I don’t see why, in principle, that we couldn’t adopt from a therapeutic point of view you know the kind of existentialist approach. So one possibility if we’re just going to let our imaginations run wild, is before the open the envelop I could see folks pointing out that this need not be seen as a death sentence perse so much as an existential beacon in the night. That knowing precisely how much time one has left under the bets of circumstances may allow us to literally just get the most out of the days that we have.
Rose: But, Sheldon’s research, and all the research on terror management theory, is all on subtle reminders of death.
Sheldon: Interviewing someone in front of a funeral home as opposed to 100 meters on either side.. We Flashing the word death for 28 milliseconds, so fast you can’t even see it.
Which isn’t quite the same thing as actually knowing, consciously, all the time, that you are going to die, soon. So I wanted to talk to someone who really, really knows that feeling. When we come back, we’re going to talk to a woman who has spent the last eight years basically, living in the shadow of death. And, we’re going to talk about all the ways our world might change if we lived with our own death dates hanging over our heads. So, stick around, and we’ll be right back.[[AD]]
So, we’ve been talking about a future where you can chose to know when you’re going to die. And, this is an impossible question really, but it’s one that I like because it gets at questions about how much you really want to know, how certain do you really want to be about your life, and the end of your life.
And to think about what a world full of death dates might look like, I called up this guy.
Ryan North: I’m going to send you all the adjectives in front of the word dog every day. [laughs] Sure I’m right Ryan North I’m one of the coeditors on the book about a machine rather that tells you how you’re going to die not when and I also write down like comic Dinosaur Comics.
Back in 2005, Ryan published an episode of Dinosaur Comics that outlined the premise of the machine of death: you go to the machine, it takes a blood sample, and it spits out a card that sells you how you’re going to die. Maybe it says “poisoned apple,” or “drowned,” or “old age.” Ryan thought it would just be a one off joke, but his friends Matthew Bennardo and David Malki started exploring little short stories based on the premise, and eventually they opened up the idea to general submissions. So far there have been two Machine of Death anthologies, each full of stories about what happens when you know how you will die. They’re really fun, I highly recommend them.
So I called Ryan because our scenario is similar — except for us, you know when you’ll die, not how. And Ryan’s first thought on the death date was, pretty morbid.
Ryan: Well the first thing I thought of was wow this changes society in a huge way. Because if you’re maybe within six months of your death date even if you want to get on a flight with someone who’s going to die the next just want to inflict on his dying that they don’t want to be around you right. Which means your life is changing as you get closer and closer to your death date because fewer and fewer people want to be associate with you. Or like what if a bunch of people you realize that you your neighbor and everyone in the same city has the same day or the same month. That’s concerning. Usually want to get out of Dodge.
Rose: In a lot of the stories in the Machine of Death books, there’s a built in age limit. You can’t get tested until you’re 16 or 18 or something. I mean, if your kid is going to die at 2, do you want to know that? Or not?
Ryan: But how awful like how awful how awful your baby tested after birth and be like oh two years. Wow. Like what do you what do you do after that how do you not spend the next two years spinning torn apart?
Rose: I can imagine a future where some schools require death date testing, and won’t take kids who are going to die that year. But Ryan also says that people could use their death dates to their advantage.
Ryan: Let’s say you have you get even forget the diagnoses, let’s say you have a death date in six month. If they go okay to die in six months which means you’re not going to die for the next five months and 30 29 days so you could be like a firefighter with absolute security and your well-being. You could do all the stuff that’s dangerous knowing that you’re going to be fine. Or these are not going to die. You might get horribly injured but you’ll linger on for at least another six months.
Or maybe we could assemble armies full of basically invincible people.
Ryan: There was a great story in the second book, about the government making this sort of elite squad of invincibles who have these cards that are like really peaceful like in bed surrounded by loved ones. So you can send these guys into battle and know they’re going to be fired like they can’t be killed in battle because the cars are so nice and so pleasant and I feel like the same with time what you have. How do you fight wars? How do you fight battles if you can make a troupe of people who are going to die. Sixty years from now they’re going to roll over you. You can’t stop them unless you invent a weapon that paralyzes people for 60 years and then you remove that advantage.
Rose: And, Ryan thought of something that I had not even considered. People trying to cheat.
Ryan: you would be like on a plane trying to rush the date line and delay it as much as possible?
Rose: I had not even thought of that that’s the genius.
Ryan: I spent a lot of time thinking about how to cheat death.
Rose: But it’s ultimately futile though, right?
Ryan: Is it though? Let’s say I’m going to die 10 years from now I have a month a day in a year and I’m like I don’t want to die 10 years from now. I’d rather die 60 years from now if I can you know spend those 10 years getting elected president of America and then pushing through a law that changes the calendar from the Gregorian Calendar to the Ryan Northian calendar, that changes the years minus sixty, I might be able to escape it again because you have to rules lawyer it right. You try to find the loopholes and drive a truck through.
Rose: And if we can really test people for their death date, why not animals? Why not your dog or cat or plant or tree? Maybe we could use it to predict extinctions, or see just how bad climate change is really going to be.
Ryan: Oh if we can test plants, now we’re crazy!
Rose: I mean this is already a ridiculous idea!
Ryan: Because it’s now we’re testing all life which means we have a test for whether or not something is alive. And we can answer some questions about long lived species like those those trees it lives a thousand years and stuff like that. Which means if you have trees that live thousands of years which we do and you see those are all dying at a certain date in the future which they might you know Earth is screwed.
Rose: Okay, so, we’re way out in the woods here. But, hey, you asked for a weird episode! So here we are, testing trees for their death date.
Anyway, it’s easy for me to sit here and ponder about what it might be like to really know when you’re going to die, like it’s this fun thought experiment. But as I was thinking about this I realized that, for some people this isn’t really a fun thought experiment. It’s their life. There are people living right now with what is essentially an expiration date. And I wanted to talk to someone who really knows what it’s like to live thinking about death, all the time.
Eva Hagberg Fisher: I’m trying to think, how do I, the story is so weird and it’s so complicated
This is Eva Hagberg Fisher
Eva: Sure, um, so right now I am 33 I live in Berkeley, I’m married, I’m finishing a PHD at UC Berkeley in architectural history, history english, sort of an interdisciplinary thing.
Rose: Eva is the also author of a memoir of brain disease and love called It’s All In Your Head, and she writes a column for Everup about medicine (and feelings) called How to Go To The Doctor. And Eva’s medical story is, complicated. Let’s say complicated. A lot has happened to her in the past eight years. We’re only going to cover some of the story, and we’re going to skip a lot of parts, I just want to give you a sense of what she’s gone through before we talk about her feelings about knowing her death date.
So in 2008, Eva was 25, and she was living in New York City, she was working as an architecture critic, and she started feeling kind of weird all the time.
Eva: I started noticing that I was dizzy a lot of the time and I was really thirsty all the time,
Eventually she went to the doctor, and they ran a test and it came back negative, and the doctor basically said, I’m not sure what’s wrong with you, but go to this vestibular rehab place, where they’ll help you work on your balance. Eva thought that maybe her dizziness was due to stress, so she actually moved away from New York City to see if that would help.
Eva: I basically spent a year, I basically rode my bike and ate a lot of Oreos and kind of had this palette cleansing year.
Rose: In Portland, she applied for grad school and in 2010, she moved to Berkeley to start her PhD. But pretty much as soon as she got to grad school, things got worse.
Eva: I had this like, really unusual anxiety and really kind of obsessive thoughts, obsessive fears, it was really really strange and unusual.
Rose: A doctor put her on anti-anxiety medication, which, didn’t really help.
Eva: Which made my symptoms kind of easier to accept but it didn’t make them go away. So I’m in this kind of weird half numbed out state trying to go through grad school.
Rose: And over the course of about a year and a half, things just kept getting worse. She would wake up covered in sweat, she struggled to focus on anything. She had these sudden mood swings and tantrums, she would throwing glasses around her kitchen and forgetting her students names.
Eva: Things just started getting, they stopped making sense physically and they also stopped making sense mentally
Rose: She wound up fainting in the hallway of her yoga studio, and after an EKG she was diagnosed with something called Wolff Parkinson White syndrome.
Eva: Which basically can kill you at any, it causes, and this is a clinical term, sudden death
Rose: So they tell her, you’ve got this thing, make an appointment with cardiology
Eva: Get yourself checked out. And the next day, I had an appointment the following week, but the next I woke up, and I couldn’t walk, and I was really confused. I tried to go to the pharmacy, I couldn’t figure out if I should drop off the prescription or pick it up first, you know? That didn’t make sense to me. So I went to the ER.
Rose: Eva spent the next six days at the hospital at UCSF where nobody could figure out what was going on. She made some phone calls to friends and the parents of friends, pushed for more tests, and eventually they found something.
Eva: He comes in three or four hours later and he’s like um, there’s a finding, and shows me on the screen this lesion behind my pituitary that had actually hemorrhaged
Rose: And the doctors thought that there was a tumor growing in her brain, they just couldn’t see it. So she had brain surgery, but they didn’t find anything. And, a couple of days after the surgery Eva got really sick.
Eva: I was just throwing up every three to five minute. I remember really clearly, paramedics coming and being strapped to a gurney and being driven across the bring, I was going into a low sodium coma and I was 2 sodium points above brain stem death, and I remember looking out that back windows and crossing over and I remember thinking this is going to be the last thing I’m every going to see, and in that moment I was completely calm. You know this calm that people talk about, At the time I thought I was really calm because I was tough, but now I know it was that my brain was shutting down, I didn’t think I would die this soon but I guess this is just how it is
Rose: We’re going to fast forward a little bit here, because this is really just the beginning of years of medical confusion and tests and doctors. Over the past five years Eva’s been diagnosed and un-diagnosed with uterine cancer, a brain tumor, uterine cancer again, chronic fatigue syndrome, mold illness, brain cancer again, histamine intolerance, the list goes on, and on. At some point in there she was re-diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White and had heart surgery to treat it. She got married, she got better, then she got sick again. She moved to Sedona to escape what she thought was a mold allergy, and when that didn’t work she moved back to California. Eventually she was diagnosed with something called mast cell activation syndrome, a immune disorder where certain cells release too many chemicals. If you’re confused it’s okay, it’s confusing, and this is an EXTREMELY condensed version of her story, she does have a memoir if oyu want to read the rest of it oyu should do it.
But the point of telling you all of this is to make it very clear that Eva really knows what it’s like to live thinking about her own death kind of all the time.
And she says that after this, she kind of, gets a little tired of “what if” thought experiments, like the one we’re conducting in this very episode.
Eva: Actually knowing that you could die at any moment is very very very different. From abstractly believing that you know that you could die at any moment. A lot of people will say, a lot of people said, as a way of trying to comfort me like, “we’re all dying we could all die at any moment.” And I found this very very hard to swallow because as much as I had like, tried to live as though I were dying you know in some way like OK let me pretend that this is my you last year. What’s really important to me you know this kind of like self-improvement exercises that we do and very we do I don’t know. I’ve done I’ve seen people do you know where this sort of obsession with movies like The Bucket List or last holiday like let’s print Let’s pretend that we’re going to die soon and like oh I’ve always wanted to open a bakery. Like I’ve always wanted you know butterflies are really beautiful. And that was not my experience like my experience of having basically this month in which I just had to survive until I could get the appropriate surgical treatment for my heart condition. I was not like you know I always wanted to write a novel. I was like This is fucking horrible. This is the scariest thing I’ve ever been through. And I’m so scared to die that I don’t have the mental bandwidth. So like suddenly start reading books about butterflies or to take a really nice vacation.
Rose: So there’s this idea that knowing our death date is going to free us up to do fun things! And be our best selves! She says, that just, isn’t what happened to her. She was just, scared all the time. And that’s the biggest thing I got from Eva, really, is that, we can talk about oh what would it be like to know you were going to die on this date, but we can’t really feel just the abject terror that she felt when really truly faced with her own death.
Eva: And realizing that I had not understood the word terror before that happens. Like I had been scared but I hadn’t been terrified. And I would just. The things that would set me off would inevitably be some kind of like social slight or something. And then I would become completely hysterical and hyperventilate and the way I mean it sort of just like titrating up of of awareness. And I think that I could I was not able, emotionally and intellectually to really grapple with what was happening that it kind of came out in these like other ways.
Rose: And living with death so close by has profoundly changed her, in ways that it might change many of us if we lived in a world where we could know our death dates. Eva thinks about death all the time.
Eva: I think about my death now every single day. At least once. I realize that most people don’t constantly wonder who is going to be next. Which I kind of wonder a lot. You know I think about my friends and I’m like who, who’s going to die? And my therapist has told me this is not like quote unquote normal. Normal thoughts. I think it might be normal thoughts that we just don’t talk about. But I don’t know.
Rose: But it’s not all bad! It’s not all bad.
EVA71: And, also, the other thing I want to say and then I’ll let you go, is and then I’ll let you go but I realize I’ve been like pretty kind of dark this whole time but really like my experience of joy changed tremendously and my my appreciation for joy and the way in which I sought out joy and sought out laughter and like some days it was as simple as like I’m going to go on BuzzFeed and click on their L O L and keep looking until something actually makes me l o l. And so this experience has also really given me a richness of experiencing ordinary life and also like a drive towards joy as much as a drive towards, like achievement. Or you know selling 4 billion copies of my book or whatever and so that is a really important piece of this is that like the flip side of being so available so the darkness is really being just as available for all of the lightness and the beauty that comes with life. So that is a really important piece. And that doesn’t feel like oh I realized butterflies are pretty. It feels like a much deeper like oh oh I’m I’m laughing right now like every time I find myself hysterically laughing I like call attention to it in my in my head I’m like I am laughing I am experiencing laughter and joy and this is beautiful and I’m going to like soak it up. Because I know so deeply it’s opposite. And so it’s just you know the lows are lower and the highs are higher. And and the highs are really beautiful.
Rose: At the end of every interview I did for this episode, I asked the same question: If you had the choice to find out your death date, would you? Would to want to know? And for Eva, I thought I knew what she would say. Because one of the things that Eva has written about, and talked about a lot was how hard it was to spend years not really knowing what she had and how bad it was. She had cancer scares, but never cancer. She had mysterious symptoms that nobody could ever figure out. It was all so uncertain.
Eva: I have this IPhone app that’s like my chart right and I would look at my tumor marker and I would look at it just steadily rising which it did for six months it just kept rising and basically incremental rise is really indicative of a malignancy growing. And I would feel this kind of relief that, like soon I could just kind of give up. And I wouldn’t have to constantly question myself and question my symptoms and wonder if I was exaggerating or wonder if I could try harder.
Rose: So I thought that after all these years of being unmoored, unsure of what was coming, Eva would want the certainty of a death date. To really know. letter, to know exactly when she would die. But she said no, she wouldn’t. What she realized after all of this is that data, numbers, certainty, they seem like they could comfort you. But they can’t. At least not for her.
Eva: One of the biggest lessons that I learned was that I had. I had believed that information was God in a way. And I am not religious so I use that as a as a nonspecific, term. And so getting back to this original sort of question of like do you want to know and how much does that help like I, believed that if I had enough information I would feel comfort because what I was really looking for was comfort. And I kept thinking if I just know where I stand. Then I can relax. So I imagine, having been through the last couple years and having known for certain what was going to happen or or when I was going to die. I think that’s kind of like a false. It’s a it’s a little bit of a false… that’s like a it’s like a false kind of higher power it’s a false like. Decree. Because it isn’t. It isn’t actually. Comforting because I had these days where I where I knew. There is an X percent chance that I will die on that day. And as much as I try to push my doctors for certainty and for giving me these percentages and so like OK how much more dangerous do you think it is and what is the likelihood that I’m going to die of sudden death before the surgery. And even with as much information as they gave me like that was never.comforting.
But Eva was the only one who said she wouldn’t want to know.
Chanel: I was really thinking that I might have gotten through the conversation with you without having to answer that question! Um, ugh. Well, I have, in general kind of an impulsivity issue so I don’t know that I would be able to restrain myself from doing it. I don’t know that I would want to know for me, necessarily, because I know that nothing, you can’t assume anything right. But I am a single parent of a 12 year old kid, and losing a parent is awful, losing both of your parents I don’t know what that would be like, and I’m glad that I don’t know, or at least when my parents died I’m already an adult. So I think just to be either a reassured or b to really start getting, fucking planning really hard core for my kid. I would feel obligated to find out. I don’t know that I’d be happy about it, and I don’t know that I would on my own, if I wasn’t a parent I don’t think I would, I would just tralala it for as many days as I get.
Sheldon: So to be silly, because we’re indulging ourselves, I would chose both, but I know you can’t have it both ways. What I would like to think is that I would have the fortitude to just say you know what, I don’t want to know. Because you know I like the idea in principle that we should live each day, you know the, it may sound trite but the idea of living each day as if it were our last, and in so doing get the best out of every moment. On the other hand I must confess I’d probably be sneaking a peak just out of curiosity.
Ryan: I would I would be the first one to find out I think really for personal information because you know like oh I thought maybe I’m going to live, How old am I now I’m thirty six so maybe I’ll live to be thirty seven. Maybe I live to be 80. And if I live to be 37. I would like to know about that.
Rose: You’ve got some stuff to do?
Ryan: Yeah. For instance I have some deadlines in 2018 for those titles.
Rose: Sorry that book’s not coming.
Ryan: Thank you for the advance.
Rose: I’m not sure how I feel about this, honestly. I don’t have kids, I don’t really have any big things in my life that would make finding out my death date a responsible choice, like is for Chanel. If I die, my partner will take care of our dog, people will be sad, I hope, but I’m not leaving any huge holes unfilled. So I kind wish that I could be the kind of person who would just opt not to know. But I also know that I’m a reporter, and I really really hate not knowing things. So I would probably give in to that impulse eventually. I just, I don’t think I could resist!
Sheldon: I couldn’t either because then it’s like ah I want to live at least one more minute than you you poor bastard*
What about you? Would you want to know your death date? Could you resist looking? And once you found out, how would you react? Would you try to test the prediction? Would you try to become the ruler of the world to change the calendars so your date never came? Tell me! I’m dying to know. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.
Flash Forward is supported in part by patrons who donate money on Patreon! Shoutout to my patrons, you are the best. This Friday, Patrons will get the full interview I did with Ryan for this episode. It’s really fun, and weird, and surprising, so if you like what you heard from him, go to Patreon.com/roseveleth, become a patron, and you’ll get that whole thing in your inbox on Friday. Patrons also get transcripts of the show, and a weekly newsletter full of fun links, updates to past futures, and behind the scenes stuff about the show. So, go do that! It keeps the show going. Seriously.
Okay, that’s all for this episode. Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Special thanks this week to Stacie Marie Ishmael, Wendy Hari, Sheila Gagne, Kevin Y-ta-sick, with the ‘ta’ sounding like ‘task’., Jessica Gross. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
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Okay, that’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.