Recently, I asked a few students an interesting question off of one of the Facebook Memes that's going around. This question was, "would you want to know the day you're going to die." To be fair, this is hardly a question that originated with the banal interactions we have with one another on Facebook. In fact, it's a philosophical question that I recall talking over with my friends during late nights back in college and high school.
Most people say they don't want to know because then they'd have to think about it for the rest of their lives. The main benefit of knowing only comes from knowing you have a relatively short time left because then you can modify your lifestyle to maximize enjoyment of that time. Since no one wants to know they have little time left, most of us would rather forgo that possible benefit for the larger comfort of uncertainty.
This issue has come up in the past with students because of the plethora of fortune tellers around Tokyo. A lot of my students have gone to them from time to time and one of the things they are sometimes told is how long they will live. One of my students said she was told she'd live to be 70-something, but she felt that was too long because life was too hard. Recently another student told me that she didn't want to live past 60 because she didn't want to live with diminished physical capacity.
In a country where people enjoy the longest life spans in the world, I find their responses curious. It's especially odd in some ways because so many people in Japan who I've spoken to about what happens after you die believe that we face oblivion. They clearly are not thinking that there is some comfort in an after life. I also find it interesting that men don't seem to have the same reaction to the question as women. Maybe women in Japan see a long and lonely road ahead as they outlive their husbands, or perhaps their lot in life is such that they don't feel particularly satisfied with the circumstances of their lives. Or, and I think this may hold a more relevant clue, women are so responsible for taking care of their husbands (even in equitable relationships) that they see a future full of the burdens of old age without any of the restful benefits of retirement. One thing I will note is that the students who don't want to live a very long life do not have children. I wonder if having kids changes the way in which people view a longer life because they know someone will be responsible for looking after them.
Unfortunately, the number of people I teach is too small to reach any conclusions, but it is an interesting question to ponder. I can say that it always makes me a little sad when someone tells me they don't want to live that long, though I honestly can't say I want to live to be a gnarled shadow of myself unless my husband makes it there with me.