How Much Time Do You Have?

by Melannie Svoboda SND on February 26, 2018

Do you ever say to yourself, “I wonder how much more time I have left on earth.” I do.  This reflection on life expectancy is based on a chapter in my book When the Rain Speaks.


In the world of nature, various life forms have different life expectancies. A mouse can expect to live four years, a rabbit nine, a pigeon twenty-six, a deer thirty-five, a crocodile forty-five, and an elephant seventy. Other animals live even longer.

In recent years, bowhead whales were found with harpoons in their bodies dating back to the 1800s. One such whale, after an autopsy, was determined to be 211 years old. Then there’s the Aldabra giant tortoises. At first it was hard to determine their exact age because they outlived their human observers. But one carefully documented tortoise died in 2006 at the age of 255.


Some members of the plant world live even longer than us animals. A bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California is currently about 5,000 years old! I wrote about it in a previous post. That tree was already 3,000 years old when Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee! Amazing!

When it comes to life expectancy, most insects get shortchanged. A worker bee lives only one year; a worker ant lives only one-half a year. Some species of moths live for a mere twenty-four hours. (You will never hear these moths say manana, for all they have is hoy.)

Where do we humans fall on the life-expectancy scale? The average life expectancy for the world human population is sixty-six, but life expectancy for humans varies greatly from country to country. An American can expect to live 77.7 years. But a Mozambican has a life expectancy of only 40.3 years. Spain has the highest life-expectancy at 82.3. (All those siestas must help!) We can never take personal credit for our longevity, though, which is determined largely by genetics and geographic location.

The oldest documented human being was Jeanne Calmet of Arles, France who lived to be 122 years and 164 days old. Her story is fascinating. She was amazingly active, taking up fencing at eighty-five and still riding her bike at 100. In 1965, when she was a mere ninety, she signed a contract with a lawyer, Francois Raffray, age forty-five. Called a “reverse mortgage,” the contract stipulated that Raffray would pay Calmet a monthly sum for her apartment. Upon her death, Raffray would get the apartment no matter how much money he had paid her. Since she was already ninety, that was a great deal, right?

Wrong! Raffray ended up paying Calmet every month for thirty years! When he himself died at age seventy-five, his poor widow had to continue to make the payments until Calmet’s death in 1997. That ended up being a very costly apartment!

Chances are we won’t live as long as Jeanne Calmet. But as Christians we believe that no matter how long or short our life may be, our life is in God’s hands. There’s an old poem that speaks of the length of one’s life in a unique way. You sometimes here this poem at funerals. The poet says how the dates on a tombstone are often separated by a dash. The dash represents all the time the person lived on earth. We never know how long or short our dash will be. What matters in the end, the poet says, are not the dates on the tombstone. What matters is how we lived our dash. The poem concludes:

For it matters not how much we own—

the cars, the house, the cash.

What matters is how we live and love

and how we spend our dash.

What will you do with your dash today?

Our song is called “Speak Life” and it’s sung by Toby Mac. The song reminds us how important and powerful our words can be…

Did anything in this reflection surprise you or affect you?

Did anyone ever “speak life” to you? When? How? How do you “speak life” to the people in your world?

Is there anything special you want to do with the time you have left on earth?

PS: Thank you for your prayers for my two talks in Florida. And thank you to all the wonderful people who came! I ask your prayers for my next two speaking engagements. On Saturday morning, March 3, I’ll be in Camden, NJ speaking on hope. My contact person is Sr. Mary McGarrity, IHM, at the Diocese of Camden offices. Then I travel to Immaculata, PA where I’m leading a weeklong retreat for the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters. Thank you for your prayers.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen February 26, 2018 at 5:43 am

Dear Sr. Melannie,

The dash poem was such a beautiful reminder for me about how we live our life. Two good friends have suddenly passed away during the past year and that poem was a good reminder of how we spend our “dash days.”

God bless your travels.



John Hopkins February 26, 2018 at 4:54 pm

Hi Melannie,
Great big memento mori of a reflection! But a good one. I still remember Leo Buscaglia, he of 1980s PBS fame and the college professor who taught courses on love, saying that if we don’t embrace our mortality we will never embrace our life.


anita compagnone February 26, 2018 at 8:59 pm

somehow I did not get the blog via email today. So I looked it up. Glad I did. I enjoyed all the info/facts and gist of the whole message. I also loved Leo! Read all his books.


Suzanne February 26, 2018 at 9:36 pm

Just heard the Dash poem at a recent meeting and was happy to see parts of it again. A wonderful reminder of the importance of how we live our”dash. ”

I too did not receive your email today and just googled it.


Linda February 26, 2018 at 9:54 pm

I too did not receive the email. I still Had last weeks email. Clicked on that and it came up. Monday is not the same without your blog.
So blessed to have you in my life to brighten my day.
I feel a smile speaks life. I try to smile at everyone, everyday.


Michelle February 27, 2018 at 4:20 am

Thank you Sister Melanie for sharing this wonderful story, I’m going back to refresh my memory of your book When the Rain Speaks, I read it a few years ago.
Best Wishes


Beverly Palumbo, RSM February 27, 2018 at 6:54 am

What a wonderful February uplift….Thank you….May you speak life as you travel to our area this week….those who will listen are fortunate to have you with them…safe travels and God bless.


Rosemarie Zembal Majeski February 27, 2018 at 9:45 am

I am curious if my third cousin, Sr. Mary Dechantel Zembal, who was from your order, and lived in Ohio, was from your group of sisters. When I, now 69 yr. old, was about8, we went on a trip to Oregon together. She was a vibrant lady, who lived life to the fullest. I am guessing that she was born around 1912-1920, close to my parents’ ages. I believe she taught High School.
I found your blog today, via “Living Faith,” and will look forward to following it on Mondays. Thank you. Rosemarie Majeski


Joe Johnson February 27, 2018 at 10:17 am

Life is short; it might as well be sweet!
My question for myself each day is: Is there joy, ease, and lightness in what I am doing?


Jean February 27, 2018 at 11:45 am

Sister Melannie,
Our last Auntie just passed away bringing a close to that great generation. She was 98 years old and that dash on her headstone was full of life.
Your words are so special, as always.
Thank you.


Kathleen Cunningham February 27, 2018 at 2:20 pm

My dash has been in my mind a lot after my heart stopped beating for 9 secs. while I was waiting for a cab to take me home from a short hospitalization for a bad knee. I ended up with a pacemaker and a new regimen of medications. That was in Dec., and I’m still getting used to a somewhat different lifestyle. Scary! And definitely thought provoking!!


Nancy February 27, 2018 at 9:23 pm

Sr. Melanie: So enjoyed meeting you in person at the spirit-filled retreat day at St. Peter’s. Thank you. Hopefully, L&P Nancy


Shirley Walters February 28, 2018 at 5:39 pm

Dear sister Melanie, you spoke at Espiritu Santo Parish in Safety Harbor Florida on Monday and oh how we all loved it and loved you. You are a ray of “hope” that came to us. There were many of us who found your “hope” needed in this world we face today. I am an associate and loving my relationship with the sisters of Notre Dame. Keep up your wonderful work and keep writing those wonderful books. Love Shirley


Kathleen O’Neill March 17, 2018 at 6:48 am

Thank you for these very refreshing insights wish I hope will well up in my heart and bring me new life!


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