Rewriting your fears about the future

Have you ever thought about how old you would like to be when you die? Or how you would die? This column is about a woman, Elaine, who sat next to me on an airplane.

Before the plane took off, Elaine described herself as a “white knuckler,” as she had fear of flying. Twenty minutes after we were in the air, she said, “I just realized we’ve been flying. I was so engaged in our conversation that I completely forgot about my fear!”

That, of course, was my intention. I commented, “So your fear of flying is that you’ll die, right?” Elaine agreed emphatically.

I related a story to her about when I turned 35. I was having a few beers with a British friend of mine who had a good sense of humor. He said, “You’re halfway to death as men only live to be in their early 70s.”

If he had done his research, he would’ve learned that the average man’s life expectancy is early 80s. I immediately replied to him, with an Irish expression, “Screw you and the horse you came in on!” What I said to him next came to mind immediately without thinking: “Fairytales can come true. It can happen to you, if you’re young at heart. You can survive to 105, if you’re young at heart. So I’m only a third of the way there and not halfway as you mistakenly said, alcohol-breath.”

We laughed. It didn’t end there. Years later, I invited a dozen friends to my apartment in Hollywood for cocktails and took them out to a nearby restaurant, where I celebrated my 52nd-and-a-half birthday — halfway to 105.

I told Elaine to select the age she would be OK with dying. She said 86.

“Since you’ve now made a conscious intention to live to be 86, enjoy the rest of the plane ride,” I told her.

For some reason, her husband was sitting behind us — maybe because of her high plane anxiety all these years. She asked him what age he would want to live to be and encouraged him to just make one up. He did so to oblige her.

Elaine was enjoying looking at life through a new lens, but she had a suggestion for me: “When you reach 104 and you’re still kickin’, you may want to renegotiate that 105-year figure.”

Over the years, a few of my clients related stories about someone in their family who decided to die a certain way and at a certain time. At the
time, I found it hard to believe. But then I thought, “What the hell, go for it!”

I told Elaine that, years ago, I decided how I would like to die at 105. Instead of being limited to my stay in the Hotel of Life, I decided I would call downstairs to the front desk and let them know when I’d be checking out rather than giving them that determination.

Elaine said, “I like how you think!” I went further with that metaphor by selecting how I would die. I would fall asleep and stay asleep while having a heart attack. Like all of us with such fears about how we may die, it was much better than what I had been worrying about until then, which had been drowning, since I was an avid swimmer.

While writing this column, I received a call from an old friend in Boston. She told me her daughter’s mother-in-law just died of a heart attack. I let her know the gist of this piece I was writing. My friend commented that she, herself, had always been worried about dying and how it would happen. I asked her what would be a good age for her to die, and she replied 80. She went on to say that her father always said he was going to die from a stroke — and he did exactly that.

I told her to imagine how she would like to die, and she said, “I’d be well taken care of in hospice without any pain.” She commented, “I feel relieved now.”

Just because we have worrisome thoughts doesn’t mean they will come true. Most people assume the “conversation” in their head is correct, as Elaine had about dying on an airplane. Take a look at your life and see where you can “rewrite” any story about the future that causes you angst.

Dr. Richard Crowley is a psychologist and co-author of the “Imagine All Better” book and app. Email comments to doc@imagineallbetter.com.

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