While staying at a friend’s home, my heart decided to take a sudden vacation. Thus, for a minute or so I had no heartbeat. Having a fatal disease, I accept the fact that, at any one moment in time, I could “check-out” into the neither-land of life. For the moment, I cannot recall white lights, beckoning of dead relatives or anything noticeable. I do however recall a voice telling me I had to return.
Having earned a living in the insurance business, I’ve been offered an uncommon view of death. Within the walls of most major life insurance companies, life is summarized via a series of seemingly simple screens. Underneath those screens lie a web of heuristics and algorithms that would make IBM Watson proud. Each applicant is analyzed by the totality of known medical conditions, statistically rating everything from an ingrown hair to heart disease. After the analysis, insurance contracts are filled with legalese that tests the nerves of most claimants, including terms such as exclusions, cash value, premiums and benefits leave claimants left in the dark about exactly how their benefit was determined.
Most are unaware that life insurance companies can summarize an applicant’s life via seven (7) simple computerized screens. The first screen captures your basic information: male or female, address, birthdate, Social Security Number, premium paid, life insurance amount, etc. The second and third screen is all about finances, especially how much accumulated debt, credit history and credit score. Fourth and fifth screen is one’s medical information and history. These screens run an applicant through the Medical Information Bureau looking for undisclosed medical conditions, prescriptions and physician statements of health. Insurers will also check driving records, arrests records and warrants as well as employment history. The sixth screen is basically how one died, i.e., the cause of death and autopsy report. The last screen is the claim approval or denial.
The same principles apply in regular everyday life. Ever send a resume electronically? If yes, chances are your life has been measured by some algorithm before anyone saw it, if at all. Want that Starbucks coffee? Then whipping out the ol’ credit card ensures some computer program in a faraway database will analyze every purchase, your likes and dislikes as well as future tendencies.
Society tends to measure our life by credit card purchases, homes, smart phones, iPads, iPods, data this data that. We interact upon almost every aspect of life via a phone that it’s extremely difficult to engage in normal day-to-day conversations, even during death. For example, Scott Simon, a host on National Public Radio, shared his mother’s journey into death with more than 1.2 million followers, through dozens of tweets.
Thus, as I watched hospital staff and the interaction of caregivers, I longed to reinforce some key fundamental Buddhist thoughts. While the measure of one’s life varies from culture to culture, from individual to individual, our measurement must be based on both ideology and personal values. Dying is both a great challenger and equalizer. It breaks into our lives and smashes our personal boundaries of what life is all about. We must reach beyond our own algorithms that define us and remember to invest in someone beyond the analysis. Algorithms care little for the personal. It is we who have to remember the personal.
My hospital room reminded that life is not about the birth-date or date of death, it’s about the dash in-between. I imagined my life without a partner, a family member or a close friend. Facing death and being in pain seems a sorrowful battle when fought alone. Facing any crisis alone is extremely challenging.
To that end, why can’t all of us reach beyond the electronics and algorithms of life and give to the needs and wishes of one another? Doing so would be very Buddhist, very Christ-like.