26.1 C
New York
Friday, May 24, 2024

Can Being Reminded of My Death Improve My Life?

Lately I’ve been feeling like life is passing me by, so I downloaded an app that reminds me five times a day that I’m going to die. I thought it would help me accept my mortality and focus on what really matters, but it just makes me anxious. Is there something wrong with me? Is being anxious the point? Do you think these apps can be helpful? 

—Pinged to Death

Dear Pinged to Death,

I don’t think there is something wrong with you. Or rather, you seem to be suffering from a problem that is endemic to the whole of humankind, a species with an almost limitless ability to live in denial of the one inevitability. Even explicit reminders of our demise—be it the death of a loved one or a phone notification—fail to inspire a fear and trembling worthy of the abyss and instead suffuse our lives with a vague disquiet, an ambient dread. “Death,” as W. H. Auden put it, “is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” That is, incidentally, one of the quotes featured by WeCroak, the app I presume you are using, which accompanies its death reminders with nuggets of literary wisdom from Kierkegaard, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Atwood, and others.

We live in an age of slo-mo crises, those that unfold at a tempo that makes them easy to ignore. Social security dwindles year after year. The glaciers are melting faster, but still at glacial speeds. The seas are warming at a rate that could boil alive the proverbial toad. Death lurks behind all of them. Occasionally, the direness of our predicament is made real through a natural disaster or a UN climate report, but the alarm bells fade with the rhythms of the news cycle. The Doomsday Clock—arguably the most deliberate attempt to keep our focus on these threats—is currently perched at 100 seconds to midnight, putting us at roughly a minute and a half, in the timescale of existential risk, from our final demise.

Death-reminder apps are essentially a Doomsday Clock for the individual. In fact, some of them contain actual clocks so that you can watch, in real time, your remaining hours slip away. The Death Clock, a website that’s been active since 1998, predicts the day of your death, though its estimations are based on somewhat crude data points—your age, BMI, whether you smoke. Several years ago, the horror film Countdown imagined an app that was able to intuit, down to the second, the time of a person’s death, with the user agreement serving as a deal with the devil. (The film’s tagline: “Death? There’s an App for That.”) The movie inspired a real-life app built on the same premise—minus, obviously, the supernatural knowledge, but it freaked out enough people to get temporarily booted from the App Store.

WeCroak is not quite so morbid. Its inspirational quotes about mortality are meant to remind users to pause and take stock of what they’re doing, a sort of companion to the many mindfulness apps. Its cofounder came up with the idea while in the throes of a Candy Crush addiction, and many users have remarked that the app, which tends to interrupt those hours whiled away on Twitter or TikTok, has forced them to confront how much of their lives is wasted on social media. The product, in other words, belongs to that ever-expanding category of technology that is designed to remedy problems that technology has created. If digital platforms remain our most reliable distraction from the crude facts of our mortality—so the logic goes—perhaps we can channel the same tools to break through those psychological buffers and deliver us to a more enlightened comfort with our impending demise.

WeCroak, as you may already know, is partly inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying that claims that happiness can be achieved by contemplating death five times daily. Bhutan has often been ranked as one of the world’s happiest countries, and WeCroak seems to be trading on a casual exoticism that is not uncommon in mindfulness culture, presenting Eastern traditions as the antidotes that will finally free us from the trance of modernity. The fact that it has only increased your anxiety, however, is not at all surprising to me. It’s not so easy to simply will yourself to confront a truth that you’ve been acculturated to ignore. (If anything, the notion that we can reverse the entire current of Western mortality denial with a free app is more a symptom of our technological hubris than its tonic.) The Bhutanese practice of contemplating death has grown out of a larger cultural context that does not shirk from mortality, as evidenced by the country’s elaborate funeral rites and the tradition of observing a 49-day mourning period. Bhutan’s dominant religion, Buddhism, teaches that transcendence hinges not on escapism but on accepting the brute facts of existence—namely, the fact that life itself is suffering.

In the end, death apps are less a wake-up call than another false comfort, one that reflexively defers to the favored religion of our age—information. Given that we routinely rely on apps to predict the future, providing stats about what the weather will be like tomorrow or whether our favorite restaurant will be busy, it may seem natural to believe that they can also prepare us for the great unknown. But death remains the only landscape without an IP address, the one locale that you cannot research, the “undiscovered country” that remains absent from Google Earth. I suspect your anxiety stems in part from your awareness that the app, on its own, is not really addressing the heart of your fear. Surely you know, on some deeper level, that death can’t be predicted or controlled.

That’s not to say that you should immediately delete WeCroak. I’m ultimately skeptical of the notion that one can live entirely without illusions, and this is doubly true for those of us who are conditioned to flinch at any whiff of the eternal void. Most of us will turn to one crutch or another to keep that knowledge at bay. If you resent relying on technology to fill the vacuum, there are plenty of other solutions. You might consider political engagement, committing your life to a cause that will continue to bear fruit after your death. There is always religion, the opiate of the masses. There is actual opium (along with the whole panoply of modern drugs), which has the added benefit of accelerating the deathward journey even as it dulls the pain.

If you remain intent on contending with your mortality, the best solution I can think of is simply to wait—if not for death itself, then for more life experience. I find it telling, and not particularly surprising, that most WeCroak users report being in their twenties and thirties, the decades of modern adulthood when death still seems abstract and far off. I am willing to bet, in fact, that you are in that age category yourself. Soon enough—sooner than you think—your body will start to break down. More and more of your peers will die. The milestones of middle age will prompt you to tally a dark arithmetic, weighing the years spent against the years that remain as you begin to comprehend, perhaps for the first time, the inflexible nature of time. This knowledge cannot be obtained through the consumption of facts and statistics; it resists the crisp utility of digital reminders. It is an existential awareness that comes only through the immediacy of lived experience. The poet Jane Hirshfield—whose words are included in the library of WeCroak quotes—writes in her poem “The Present” of how it feels to finally reckon with the fragility of life, an experience that is every bit as illuminating as it is unnerving. “How fine is the mesh of death,” she writes. “You can almost see through it.” Almost.

Faithfully, Cloud

Be advised that CLOUD SUPPORT is experiencing higher than normal wait times and appreciates your patience.

If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.

This article appears in the February 2022 issue. Subscribe now.

Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at mail@wired.com.

More Great WIRED StoriesThe race to find “green” heliumYour rooftop garden could be a solar-powered farmThis new tech cuts through rock without grinding into itThe best Discord bots for your serverHow to guard against smishing attacks👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽‍♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphonesMost PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Related Articles

Latest Articles