According to Chris Jordan, a New Jersey shore native who writes about music and entertainment, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed “like their lives depended on it” when they recently kicked off their 2023 tour in Tampa, Florida early February. The tour will keep the 73-year-old Springsteen on the road for six months, playing a total of 62 concerts, proving that mortality can be a motivating force resulting in increased productivity while also dismantling the myth that productivity decreases with age.
Not that the “Boss” is in imminent danger of dying. He seems quite fit, playing high-octane concerts lasting almost three hours. But considering that hardly a week goes by without news of the death of a rock star when Springsteen plays a stripped-down version of “Last Man Standing” from his 2020 album, Letter to You, you begin to understand why death is on Springsteen’s mind.
“Last Man Standing” refers to Springsteen, the last surviving member of his first group, The Castiles, following the 2018 death of his bandmate George Theiss. Springsteen told Rolling Stone that Thiess’ death sparked deep reflections on mortality and spurred him to write many of the tunes on Letter to You. Springsteen said to the concert-goers in Tampa: “[Mortality] brings a clarity of thought and a purpose that you might have not previously experienced. At 15, it’s all tomorrows. At 73, it’s a lot of goodbyes. That’s why you have to make the most of right now.”
You don’t have to be a baby boomer to relate to what Springsteen is saying. However, boomers comprise 21.6 percent of the U.S population, and they are the main age group attending his concerts, including his long run on Broadway. Baby boomers are now between 59 and 77 years of age. About one-third of them have died. The “last man standing” will become extinct by about 2086. What boomer doesn’t have death on their mind?
Contemplating death is not necessarily bad. According to psychologist Steve Taylor, being more aware of your own mortality can be a positive development. He came to this conclusion while working on his book Out of the Darkness and after interviewing individuals with terminal illnesses and people who have had near-death experiences, such as those who had a heart attack or almost drowned.
Taylor wrote: “Facing death had taught them that the future and the past are unimportant, and that life only ever takes place in the present moment … Becoming aware of our own mortality can be a liberating and awakening experience, which can — paradoxically, it might seem –encourage us to live authentically and fully for the first time.”
There are many great books about death and dying, such as Being Mortal and With the End in Mind. They describe how dying loved ones should be treated: gently, with dignity, compassion, forethought, and preparation. This message should never be lost upon us. However, I’m equally impressed by the notion that the sudden realization our time on earth is limited not only instructs us to live in the moment but it also seems to enhance our productivity. And since physical activity improves virtually every health outcome, it offers the option of a healthier, longer life.
Springsteen isn’t the only rock star who understands that facing mortality may increase productivity. Years prior to the death of rock legend David Crosby, he joked he did not have long to live. Yet, he lived to 81, and his final decade was his most productive, touring and releasing five studio albums. Rock guitarist Wilko Johnson, formerly of the band Dr. Feelgood, told the BBC he felt “vividly alive,” experiencing a sense of euphoria after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. Johnson refused chemotherapy despite being given only eight or nine months to live without treatment.
In South Korea, some companies are using mock funerals as a way to combat employee depression and increase productivity. (South Korea has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates in the world.) After the employees emerge from wooden coffins in their pretend funerals, they allegedly have a better outlook on life and work now that they have glimpsed the alternative.
I’m always reminded of the relationship between mortality and productivity whenever I encounter people who have a “bucket list” — a list of activities to do before dying — that is, before “kicking the bucket.” People on a mission to complete their bucket list are not necessarily terminally ill; a sizable percentage realize time is precious and they had better get moving.
I recently turned 69. I’m in relatively good health, although I only have fifteen years to live statistically. A couple of years ago, I began to feel pressure — entirely self-imposed — to produce and accomplish more things. Instead of a bucket list, I began carefully weighing my priorities. I became more cognizant of my decisions. I knew that my choices mattered now more than ever. I banished certain activities I considered futile or non-essential, such as collecting CDs and wine. I stored my music digitally, stopped drinking alcohol, and sold my wine collection.
Most of my output has been in the form of writing — about 70 essays and op-eds published online at various websites since 2019. I feel engaged, and my mind is active when I write. It’s the best way I know to impart advice to younger health care professionals without a formal mentoring relationship. Drawing from my experience and publishing essays is how I pay it forward while expressing gratitude to those who have mentored me.
With aging comes the reality that I’m less mobile, which is another reason I’ve gravitated toward writing — it’s a sedentary activity. Still, I travel to see my children and grandchildren, including two yearly trips to Hawaii. Family relationships top the bucket list for the majority of baby boomers. I agree that family is the most important area to focus on. You could say that family has become my raison d’etre.
Ten years ago, The Rolling Stones named their tour 50 & Counting, which was not an exaggeration, considering “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” is still going strong even after weathering the loss of drummer Charlie Watts. So, above all, I ask that the good Lord continues to “shine a light” on me. And now that I’m a half-decade past 64, I also ask that people still need me and feed me.
Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. His forthcoming book is titled Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine.