In Praise of Life (Let’s Ditch the Cult of Longevity) May 8, 2015

In Praise of Life (Let’s Ditch the Cult of Longevity)

This is a guest post written by Glen Olives Thompson. He is a Professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, Mexico.

You are going to die.

If this troubles you, it shouldn’t; you should get over it and get on with living.

Here’s why.

My wife’s cousin recently died of a heart attack. On an idle Sunday afternoon while enjoying lunch with his family he felt odd heart palpitations and laughed them off. When the arrhythmia returned, he reluctantly agreed to go to a nearby clinic open on Sundays. He died in the car as his wife was driving him to the hospital.

For my eight-year-old daughter, this was the first experience of the death of a known person, and it brought forth the inevitable impossible-to-answer questions in a child’s mind: namely, why do people have to die?

It seemed to her to be horribly unfair, and she couldn’t quite grasp the concept of oblivion, though I am confident someday she will. Many adults, unfortunately, never graduate from this childish belief in the insidious unfairness of mortality, forgetting that moral concepts like justness and equity have no foothold in biology.

As it turns out, we humans die with some frequency (the most pedestrian of observations, I admit). And those of us who have done something remarkable (I say “us” but don’t include myself) like publishing interesting books, or making important contributions to the sciences or the arts, tend to get written-up in obituaries when we die. People are interesting, which is one reason (among others) the living often enjoy reading about the lives and work of the dead. But we not only die with frequency, we also die on a pretty predictable trajectory — something, interestingly, we rebel against, as if it were some malfeasance against us we have the right, and ability, to avoid. Our bodies wear out, parts break, and we get diseased. The medical sciences, too, in a manner, rebel against the thought of inevitable death from old age; death must come with a medically diagnosable reason, something that can be treated. On no modern death certificate will you find under Cause of Death the phrase “just got old” or “body wore out.” You’ll only find things like “metastatic esophageal cancer” (in the case of Christopher Hitchens) or “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease” (in the case of Leonard Nimoy).

As for Nimoy, I read several of the obits written about him, and while I learned a lot I didn’t know about his remarkable life, I couldn’t help but notice how prominently his cause of death, and its link to him having been a smoker, were featured. There is no way to really know whether his smoking caused his OCPD, though scientifically it is a safe bet to say it couldn’t have helped. This strange focus was, in my view, misplaced. He was, after all, 83 years old, having lived beyond the average life expectancy for the average American male. Healthy people who have exercised their whole lives, never smoked, and enjoyed healthy diets, have died of old age much younger. Living into old age, despite the importance of diet and lifestyle in their link to longevity, is mostly a genetic crapshoot, so why so much talk of OCPD and smoking?

Hitchens, on the other hand, a notorious smoker and drinker, died at the too-early age of 62, and it could be that his lifestyle contributed to his cancer, or it could be that his genetics were the culprit (his father died at 79 of the very same disease), or most likely, a combination of the two. Would he have lived longer if he took better care of himself? Probably, but again, impossible to know for certain. The talk of his poor lifestyle choices causing or contributing to his early demise detracts unnecessarily from his prolific and beautiful intellectual output. Moreover, he said that he burned the candle at both ends and found that “it often gives a lovely light.” He knew what he was doing, and took the risks head-on. Is it not entirely possible that, had he led a more monastic life, he would have lived longer but produced less interesting and important work? Lucky for us, Hitchens, unlike my wife’s cousin, had a long preview of his death, and wrote movingly about his mortality.

I am not, to be sure, advocating for unhealthy or irresponsible living; there are plenty of good reasons not to smoke or overindulge in drink: high public health costs, depriving the ones who love you of your presence, depriving the larger community of the important work you might be doing, etc. The list of course could go on and on. But I make only the modest point that how long you live is infinitely less important than how well you live, and what you contribute to the world.

Contrary to what most people believe, even some very intelligent ones, we do not live in an epoch of unprecedented longevity. While the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 38.3 years in 1850 and 76.3 years in 2011, we’re not living much longer than our ancestors of 2,000 years ago. The extent to which people confuse average life expectancy with average lifespan, is odd, really, and stems I think from both fuzzy thinking and the misunderstanding of what statistical life expectancy tables actually represent.

The fact is, life expectancy tables take into account infant mortality which is obviously much lower now than in the past due to medical advances, as well as deaths from non-natural causes such as murder and traffic accidents, giving us accurate, but ultimately meaningless, data (as it relates to longevity in our species). Of course exceedingly impressive medical technologies over the last two centuries have saved millions of us who would have otherwise died much younger, resulting in improving life expectancies (again, not longevity) worldwide, but an eighty-year-old woman living in ancient Babylon was no more a novelty than an eighty-year-old woman now living in modern day Brooklyn. (Of course it would be correct to point out that while we may live to the roughly the same ages, we live better now, freer of pain and discomfort than our ancestors.)

Yet we are obsessed with living longer; indeed, some of us are not merely satisfied with living longer, we want to live forever, whether with 72 virgins endlessly praising the almighty Allah, or walking streets of gold in Christianity’s concept of heaven, worshipping our Creator for all of eternity. (The utter banality of heaven in our religious texts, unquestionably the best conception the Bronze Age mind could come up with, is almost enough in itself to lead one by the hand of reason into disbelief.) Others turn to cryonics, freezing their heads or whole corpses, hoping to someday be reanimated when science finds a cure for the disease that ultimately did them in. (Good luck with that, by the way.)

The evidence for our obsession with longevity is clear and convincing, to put in pedantically legal terms. More than 495,000 academic research articles have been published on or concerning human longevity. Americans now spend more money on medications to ward off conditions that were once just part of the aging process (mental alertness, hair loss, sexual dysfunction) than they do on medications to treat chronic disease. Big Pharma — a $300 billion dollar a year industry according to the World Health Organization — is cashing in by playing to our fears of aging and dying. Scientific American just devoted an entire issue to longevity called “The Secrets of Staying Young: The Science of Healthy Aging.” Although it included some very interesting research, including an article drawing serious doubt about the benefits of antioxidants, it also included articles that one might expect to find in any health magazine: “Why Can’t We Live Forever?,” “Slowing Age-Based Memory Loss,” and “Why Exercise Works Magic,” among many others. (I fully expect this special issue to fly off the shelves, maybe breaking records.) Furthermore, by some accounts it is expected that by 2018, the global market for just anti-aging products and services will reach $284.6 billion.

We’re in an aimless race to defeat the unbeatable opponent of death — a waste of time and money.

The reason, of course, is that most of us have an irrational fear of death, and the basis of this fear is well understood in psychology; indeed it is largely responsible for the fatuous belief in the supernatural, a testament to its power. I say that this fear is irrational because when we fear death we are fearing an event that we will never experience, something Epicurus pointed out over two thousand years ago, which is an assertion impossible to rebut, at least scientifically. (Of course charlatans and pseudoscientists like Deepak Chopra do.) And yet even brilliant people such as British philosopher Bryan Magee have found the fear of death a form of uncomable-to-terms-with existential terror. In the case of Magee, however, this fear led to some very good philosophizing and an equally good novel. To his credit, Magee never took the easy way out — the low-hanging fruit of religious consolation. He remained unfailingly rational and rejected faith, as in my view was his intellectual duty. Unfortunately for other people, like Chopra, this fear has led to sophistry clothed in the raiment of science. In the case of Tolstoy, along with billions of others, it has led to the acceptance of the evidence-less dogma of religion.

Every minute of our short lives that we obsess about staying young, or delaying the aging process, or somehow cheating the inevitable, is a minute we are denying ourselves the fascinating business of living now. True, many people cannot imagine one day not existing, to which Sam Harris somewhat famously replied that this could only be attributed to a lack of trying. We didn’t exist before we were born, and few people have a problem with that assertion (believers in reincarnation aside). Why should ceasing to exist after we die present us with a particular problem? The reasons, of course, are partly selfish and partly a matter of evolutionary biology. We don’t want to cease to exist because all things considered, life for most of us is pleasurable and satisfying, and in oblivion there can be no such thing as pleasure (or pain of for that matter). As is often said, the truth need not be something we must find agreeable. But even people leading miserable existences, and those believing they will live forever in another realm, by and large, do not seem too eager to end it all just quite yet. The most credible answer to this phenomenon comes from the field of evolutionary biology. We are “programmed,” as all animals are, with the will to live at all costs, to propagate our species, to survive, and because of our big brains and ability to conceptualize abstract thought, this basic and powerful instinct carries itself into the will to live forever, a quite understandable, if not inevitable, progression. (Presumably “lower” forms of animal life are incapable of self-awareness and as such are not burdened with this proclivity.)

Perhaps medical science will one day be able to patch us up with spare, or improvised, or homemade parts so we continue to live well past our historical mortality age, like the old Packards still trolling the streets of Havana. Or perhaps the genetic code to immortality will someday be cracked, giving rise to the dystopian horrors envisioned within the fertile mind of Jorge Luis Borges in his short fiction “The Immortal,” where Homer, being an immortal for thousands of years, forgets he had written the Iliad and the Odyssey; where the immediate pursuit of any need, desire, or passion is never required; where immortals literally have all the time in the world; where death-proof people can lay on the ground motionless for months without food or water, letting birds build nests on their chests, or wait months for rescue having fallen into a well, with no particular want of urgent assistance. No pain, pleasure, hunger, or thirst. If hell really did exist, the greatest punishment of all would be immortality.

But, at least for now, we are mere mortals, and most of us feel the press of time, intimately. Others are more deaf to the inevitability of death, needing some prompting for the concept of mortality to sink in. Stories abound of people who, having had a too-close brush with death, have re-evaluated their lives, seeing with the clarity the fragility and ephemerality of life, distancing themselves from the cults of work or leisure, and focusing on neglected family, friends, and passions unrelated to money.

Our loves, our internal mental lives, our search for truth, the understanding of our very humanity, must be urgently pursued while we enjoy this human lifespan, which Magee says is, “In the eye of eternity… barely a flicker.” Spending precious moments of this brief reprieve from the obscurity from which we came by fighting indignantly, and ignorantly, against it, is a shameful waste of what little time we have.

Live the one life you are absolutely sure of, as if it is the only one you have.

And live it well.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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