Dust to Dust–Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

My mother died a couple of days ago. Actually, she didn’t except for in my overwrought imagination. I called her house around supper time, when I knew she’d be home. After a series of rings, just about the time I expected voicemail to pick up, I heard the sound of a connection. Then a couple of bumps and clicks, as if someone were dropping the phone. And then nothing.

I called out and then listened, to see if I could hear a voice, but no voice ever came. Only a few more bumps and rattles came over the line. After a brief pause, I jumped in my car to check things out, imagining that I would find her incapacitated, an arm outstretched where it had just managed to knock the phone off the hook. I’d love to claim that I was thinking very philosophical thoughts, like today’s text from Koheleth:

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. 20 All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

The reality of human life is that it terminates in human death. We all know that, but we typically don’t like to talk about it. Instead, we use euphemisms and avoidance. T.S. Eliot picked up the truth in The Waste Land:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

We’re all dying with a little patience. No one wants to talk about it, but my three-month-old granddaughter is dying with a little patience. And there lies the ultimate futility of Ecclesiastes. Everything that makes up our lives is pointless, because we’re all dying. Everything we do for other people is pointless, because they’re all dying.

Our death, and the death of every person to appear before or after us on this earth, has been guaranteed since Genesis 3, when Eve and then Adam proved unable to walk by the one off-limits tree in the Garden. God had warned them:

You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.

Genesis 2:17

We tend to read that verse as meaning that Adam and Eve should have died the day they ate the fruit, but what it actually means is that the day they ate of it, they were guaranteed that they would eventually die. Before the fruit, no death. After the fruit, certain death–with a little patience.

Getting in Tune

As it turned out, my mother was fine. Apparently it was my phone that was out of sorts. But eventually the end will come for her, just as it will come for me. Everything is futile.

There’s a reason, I think, that older people tend to turn their minds toward eternity and God. The nearer we get to the end of the road, the more we’re inclined to recognize the futility of the things that we pass along the road, the things that we try to make so important.

If we’re going to eventually recognize the futility of living for this life, wouldn’t it be sensible to beat the crowd and start focusing on eternity right away?

Dying to Exercise

old guy runningA recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine (admittedly not a journal I regularly read) indicated that exercise is good for us. This groundbreaking conclusion actually brought some joy to the hearts of serious runners who have been getting smacked with occasional studies suggesting that excessive exercise increases mortality. This much-larger study found the following decreases in mortality over the 14-year duration of the study. (I’ve expressed them in running terms, but the study did not restrict itself to running.)

  • 5 miles a week=a 20% decrease in mortality chances.
  • 10 miles a week=a 31% decrease.
  • 15 miles a week=37% decrease.
  • Up to 50 miles a week=39% decrease.
  • Over 50 miles a week=31% decrease.

Clearly any sensible person will avoid running over 50 miles per week, right? For me it will be 49.9 miles and not one step farther! But seriously, do people who run in excess of 50 miles a week do it just to prolong their lives?

Since I’m interested in the stewardship of the Christian body, it occurred to me that a bit of math might be possible. Let’s assume that our runner is doing 8-minute miles and that the reduction in mortality adds years to your life. For the purposes of my decidedly non-scientific study, I’ve assumed that average life expectancy is 80 years and that a 20% reduction in mortality adds 2 years to that. A 31% reduction thus adds 3.1 years and so forth. How did I arrive at those numbers? Honestly, I just plucked them out of the air, but humor me.

If you run 5 miles a week at 8 minutes a mile, you’ll spend just under 35 hours running each year. If that 20% reduction in mortality gains you 2 additional years of life, you’ll gain 17,520 hours of life minus 70 hours of running for a net gain of 17,450 hours or 1.99 years.

Running 35 miles a week, right in the middle of that optimal range, you’d spend a whopping 242 hours a year on the road, but your 39% reduction in mortality would earn you an additional 3.79 years of life.

Some very attentive reader will note that I have not accounted for the hours that must be run between now and when you hit your “extra time” over 80. So let’s assume that our light runner is 20 years old. Those 35 hours a year over 60 years will mount up to 2,100 hours or roughly 3 months. The net gain is still considerable.

Granted, my math is vaporous stuff but the basic premise is sound. When we invest our time in exercise–running or swimming or whatever–we’ll not just spend time. We’ll gain an increase of time on this earth. That’s time for mission trips, family events, community service, or just to make your retirement providers pay out more.

Even if exercise does not reduce stress, improve self-image, or anything else positive, the longevity issue ought to seal the deal. Exercise, the numbers insist, is good stewardship.