Like everyone, my view of death is shaped by my own life experiences. I became seriously ill with polio at the age of six and it was only as a result of the heroic efforts of my family and the skill of the physicians who treated me that I have had a full life. But as a result of that illness I always felt, even before my teenage years, that the permanent damage that the disease had inflicted on my body would take its toll over time, leaving me with a shorter lifespan than that of other people.
For reasons that I do not understand and cannot explain but which probably arose from the strong fixations that young children sometimes develop, I formed the impression very early on that by the age of forty my productive life would come to an end, and after that I would be either dead or highly incapacitated. Perhaps I fixed on the age of forty because when one is a child, that age seems unimaginably old.
I was pleasantly surprised when I passed that age without any problem. Ever since then, I have viewed each extra year as a bonus, a gift of extra life with no strings attached. I feel that I am living on extra time that I am not entitled to, and accept it with the same exuberance that I would feel were I to find a twenty-dollar bill in the street and there is no hope of tracking down the owner. Part of the enjoyment in spending it is the fact that it seems like an unexpected gift.
One consequence of this attitude is that I have little angst about getting old. In fact, rather than viewing each birthday as another milestone in my creeping decrepitude, I vaguely look forward to it each year, not because I celebrate it any way (I think celebrations of adult birthdays are silly and strongly discourage any and all parties and gifts) but because it signifies that I have made it through yet another bonus year, still in command of my faculties, still active, still productive, still learning new things, and still, in my own low-key way, enjoying life in all its complexity and unpredictability.
It is of course perfectly possible that a tragic accident might occur or that something sinister is already lurking in my body that may suddenly explode, taking my life away in an instant. Or it may leave me incapacitated. Or it may destroy my mental faculties leaving me uncomprehending. Or it may slowly ravage my body and mind, leaving me just a hollow shell of the person I used to be. One never knows and it is pointless to dwell on such things.
The human body is a robust organism that depends for its smooth functioning on the various parts being balanced and working together harmoniously. It is really quite extraordinary how resilient it is, given all the things that we do to it. People subject it to extremes of temperature, perform endurance feats that bring it to the point of collapse, abuse it with all manner of drugs, eat and drink things in excess that are not suitable for it, and yet the body manages to cope with all that abuse.
When functioning well, the body can withstand and recover from serious blows and injuries and illnesses, just as mine did after the bout of childhood polio. But at the same time, it is also a finely tuned machine in that if the delicate balance on which its functioning depends goes slightly out of whack in some particular way, it can decay rapidly or collapse precipitously. There is little that one can do about such eventualities other than taking elementary precautions and avoiding doing anything stupid.
Death is a funny topic. Most people do not contemplate death when they are young, except when they are aggrieved at some perceived injustice or feel unappreciated. Then they might indulge in a private fantasy where they play the lead role in a mental drama where they die a tragic death and all the people around them feel guilty for not treating them better while they were alive. But that kind of thing is pure self-indulgence exercised by those who do not see death as a real possibility. For people in their twenties and thirties and even forties, life seems to stretch before them indefinitely and they can live carefree lives. This is a good thing. Why think about death at that age except to avoid doing reckless things and to take precautions so that one’s loved ones are taken care of in case of one’s death?
As one gets older, one should appreciate how lucky one has been to have lived a long life and be more ready to face the end. I know that in my own case, death has become easier to contemplate with each passing year because I have been able to achieve more, see more, experience more of life. I have seen my own children grow up and become mature independent individuals, going their own way in life. The fact that no one is dependent on me in any tangible way is remarkably liberating because my death is not going to cause anyone any material hardship.
The more one enjoys the gift of life, the more one should be ready for death. This is why the deaths of children and the young are more tragic, because they have been denied the opportunity to enjoy the gift of life for enough time.
Great post, Prof Singham.
Science and modern medicine has increased life expectancy to where it stands today. Consider where most of us commenting on FTB (safe to say there are no kids?) would be by our current age 500 years ago -- dead and buried. Wouldn’t it then be a fair extrapolation to imagine that we’d live considerably longer, say a couple of hundred years from now? It is both unfortunate and baffling that any research in the “life-extension” domain (not as an ancillary benefit but for that specific purpose) is still viewed as the preserve of the somewhat kooky. I know that was not the point of your post but that’s where it took me.
Agree with you, Mano, that life is great when we have reached this stage where we are no longer primarily responsible for the children and the grandchildren; it also helps if we are not a financial burden on our descendants, but live in a segment of society where all our creature comforts are effortlessly supplied. You beat polio, and I have (so far) beaten cancer, so you and I are very lucky about that, too. I wish you more good luck and a long and healthy life.
So, ‘splain to me ’bout string theory again. I tried to read Lisa Randall’s book, but Asimov she’s not.
Gerard O says
Keep punching, Mano. And keep posting at FtB.
Mano Singham says
Sorry, string theory is something I know little about and so would not venture to explain it.
I get incredulous responses when I say I am not interested in eternal life…even if it is blissfully happy. While I, like you thoroughly enjoy my life, I do so because it is temporary and fleeting and will be gone some day. Imagining some sort of eternal life sounds scary to me. I have a few short years to accomplish things so it is fresh and challenging, but what the heck am I gonna do for eternity?