A few weeks ago, I was delighted to hear a story on the Colbert Report about Tikker, “the death watch that makes every second count!” As Tikker’s Kickstarter page indicates, “Tikker is a wrist watch that counts down your life from years to seconds, and motivates you to make the right choices. Tikker will be there to remind you to make most of your life, and most importantly, to be happy. But it’s not really about how much time you HAVE, it’s what you DO with it.” Thus, for $59 plus shipping, you can purchase your key to existential happiness!
Death looms in all of our lives. After all, the last piece I wrote for Fare Forward reminded us that death is a fact of our existence. What better way to come to terms with such a complex and unknown phenomenon than to constantly be reminded of it.
Tikker’s web page claims:
“While death is nonnegotiable, life isn’t. The good news is that life is what you make of it – and, oh boy, can it be beautiful! All we have to do is learn how to cherish the time and the life that we have been given, to honor it, suck the marrow from it, seize the day and follow our hearts. And the best way to do this is to realize that seconds, days and years are passing never to come again. And to make the right choices.”
Certainly, as I am watching the clock tick down to the moment at which my earthly existence will be extinguished, I plan to “suck the marrow” from life, and, assuming that it won’t further clog my arteries, I’d hope that marrow is quite fatty and juicy.
But, on a more serious note, this Tikker phenomenon should invite us to reflect on the place of death in our democratic culture. Alexis de Tocqueville comments that Americans are a “death-haunted” people. Tocqueville explains, “In America, I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.”
Likewise, Walker Percy, the great Southern novelist, uses a story from Mother Teresa to highlight this same observation. He states, “Mother Teresa [...] recently remarked about some affluent Westerners she had met [...] that they seemed to her sad and poor, even poorer than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor, to whom she ministered.”
Both Tocqueville and Percy, upon noting this inherent misery engendered in Western Culture, start to offer their prognoses on the cause of this misery. Interestingly, both of these prognoses concern the presence of “death” in society.
Tocqueville analyzes the “feverish ardor” with which Americans “pursue well-being,” noting that Americans are “constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest rout that can lead to [well-being].” According to Tocqueville, this “feverish ardor” comes to grip the American’s psyche in the following way:
“The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he were assured of not dying, and he rushes so precipitately to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them. He grasps them all but without clutching them, and he soon allows them to escape from his hands so as to run after new enjoyments.”
This “materialism” that Tocqueville notes causes an angst and a fear in citizens. Unfortunately, as Tocqueville points out, “Death finally comes, and it stops him before he has grown weary of this useless pursuit of a complete felicity that always flees him.” With his analysis, Tocqueville observes that the presence of “materialism” does not allow the American to properly understand his place and purpose in this world.
Percy’s analysis finds a similar root of the problem as that of Tocqueville. In the typical question and answer format found in Lost in the Cosmos, Percy asks, “What kind of impoverishment can be attributed to the denizens of Western technological societies in view of the obvious wealth of such societies?” Each of Percy’s offered answers to this question seems to suggest that “Western society” views man through the lens of materialism; that is, it sees man as a “locus of bio-phycho-sociological needs and drives.” This materialism invades man’s understanding of himself, thereby causing him to be “Lost in the Cosmos”–not understanding who he is or why he is here. Percy’s point here corresponds nicely with Tocqueville’s analysis of democratic materialism, as he states:
He who has confined his heart solely to the search for the goods of this world is always in a hurry, for he has only a limited time to find them, take hold of them, and enjoy them. His remembrance of the brevity of his life constantly spurs him. In addition to the goods he possess, at each instant he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten. This thought fills him with troubles, fears, and regrets, and keeps his soul in a sort of unceasing trepidation that brings him to change his designs and his place at any moment.
By focusing on the material and the here and now, man cannot think eternally, because he loses his understanding of his spiritual nature. Thus, materialism, for both Tocqueville and Percy, neglects the spiritual basis of man that allows him to fully come to terms with his impending mortality. With this neglect of the spiritual and embrace of the material, the American will never be able reconcile the fact that he will die.
Unfortunately, the Tikker “death watch” serves as a picturesque example of this problem of materialism. Apart from the apparent outlandishness of actually being able to predict the exact time of your death, the Tikker will continue to serve as a “remembrance of man’s brevity” in hopes of “constantly spurring him” toward getting a better life. While this existential self-help approach may sound nice, it does nothing but further distract man from the spiritual aspects of his nature. Rather than trying to project himself out onto the world and fulfill his every wish with his few remaining minutes, man should seek to cultivate his spiritual nature. By feeding this spiritual nature, man can break out of the culture of materialism and find the happiness that the Tikker claims to offer.