IMMORTALITY — The Silly Proposition

I rarely agree with columnist Roger Cohen.  But this time I do.

He began his column in a recent NYTimes opinion referring to the Beatle’s refrain “will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four” and continued his piece on the process of aging, longevity and death itself.  Of course everything is relative, especially age, so for anyone over that particular age, our perspective is quite personal.

Age is a number.  However large that number may be.  There is an enormous distinction between individuals of any particular age.  This difference grows exponentially as the population ages.  There are 85 year olds with great mental and physical agility.  Their quality of life (however defined) is excellent.  They embrace life and enjoy it.  They are rarely untouched by physical or psychological disability of one sort or another but are able to enjoy the quality of life that they possess. There are those half that age that suffer from physical and/or mental disabilities which render their lives painful or unpleasant at best.

Much credit belongs to advances in medical science, much also belongs to individual attitudes about aging itself.  We need not stop living, regardless of our “number”.  But what about the search for longevity, even immortality?  There are those who truly believe that immortality is an achievable, even desirable goal.  I find neither appealing.

First of all, it is biologically impossible.  As physical beings we are programmed to die.  All of our cells are as well.  To create a cell which is immortal is to promote cancerous transformation!!

And from a metaphysical perspective we are  here to live, learn and move on.  Lessons not learned in this incarnation may be presented over and over in subsequent ones.  Of course Cohen doesn’t go “there” in his discussions.

He does point out that the awareness of death emphasizes the need to make the most of every moment.  What is fleeting, ephemeral is precious.  Yet awareness does and should not equate to fear.  Fear can be paralyzing, impairing our ability to engage life fully.  Fear is a mental construct, one that can block joy.

We will probably see our life expectancy continue to rise.  But slowly and with and end point.  We should embrace any reasonable effort to reduce disease and suffering.  But be careful not to trade longevity for quality.  Years of vegetative “existence” is not a goal any of us would reasonably desire. Let us continue the dialogue about death.  It remains the undeniable destiny for all living beings.  Its most common cause is….birth.  So denial is not only fruitless, it impairs our ability to discuss how we  and our loved ones want to die.  We need to examine that very closely and not act like we’re shocked when  it happens.


Is happiness our ultimate goal? Self-

help gurus, even the Dalai Lama believe so.  A recent NYTimes article by Arthur C. Brooks, A Formula for Happiness,  reviews some of the issues involved.  He summarizes much of the work of the Positive Psychology movement championed by Seligman and others.

It seems quite clear my now that our baseline “happiness” has a powerful genetic component.  This has been documented by twin studies (separated at birth to discount environmental factors).  Genes might even contribute as much as 48% of our baseline sense of happiness.

What about life events, the next 40%?  Intuitively that would seem to represent a huge component.  This would include important one time events– getting a job we seek, acceptance into a particular school, meeting someone we desire, buying a house or car we have been seeking,  winning the  lottery.  These achievements do bring temporary joy.  But they do not last.

Seligman and his group write of the hedonic treadmill in which material rewards bring transitory endorphic stimulation followed by the need for more.  We also quickly lose the “thrill” of something new,  no matter how grand or dream-fulfilling.  We literally get used to it, no matter what it is.

So what is left?  The approximately 12% Brooks writes of are– family, faith, community and work.  These are intuitively obvious.  And they can be goals that we can do something about.  When it comes to work Brooks notes that income is not the deciding factor.   Poverty clearly sucks.  It can make anyone unhappy.  Financial security that raises someone into ‘middle class’ is important as a means of alleviating other worries.  But beyond that, it doesn’t help to secure happiness.

What I would add to the discussion is an important piece that is missing– our attitude about what we do.  I know bus drivers who ferry kids back and forth to school.  They love what they do.  They interact with the children, offer then advice, comfort when they seem to need it.  They see themselves as mentoring, even parenting them and the feedback from the kids is phenomenal.  I know salesmen who hate what they do and others who see their work as providing a necessary service to their clients. I know doctors who dwell in self-pity over the degrading of a once great profession with its outside interference and reduced payments.  Others choose to put those feelings aside and recognize what is sacred in the profession.  Who is happier?

Brooks points to studies that show that satisfaction with one’s work can produce happiness and that is measured not by income but by a sense of achievement, and of purpose.  It might explain how the rich who inherit money and job position often do not do well in the long run.

It seems as if the process is as important as the result.  There is something inherently human about striving first, achieving later. Brooks points to a dangerous trend in our economy–the increasing lack of job creation and economic advancement.

He offers an interesting political mix that might appeal to both Democrats and Republicans –of promoting assistance for the poor and downtrodden with a strong dose of capitalism and the promotion of free enterprise.

Help create new jobs.  Give people the opportunity to find something that provides meaning in their lives.  Be socially committed to free enterprise rather than handouts which suck the desire to work out of the individual.  In other words it is the pursuit of happiness that brings happiness. Take away the desire to pursue and happiness cannot follow. Encourage the American dream, cultivate it.

Where the country is failing at the moment is this ambivalence towards capitalism.  It is either demonized as the great Satan which rewards greedy hedge fund billionaires or lauded as a holy imperative from God.  In truth it is neither, but what it does do is to recognize human nature.   Encourage hard work, goal seeking. Watch out for unbridled greed and capitalism run wild.  Somewhere in between there is meaning and happiness.

The good news is that we can choose what we do and how we think about it.  Both will help us move towards our goal of happiness.


HOLIDAYS, FAMILIES,TURMOIL — Karmic Battleground or Opportunity?

Holiday season is here.  Beginning with Thanksgiving/Chanukah let the games begin.  Paradoxically, it is a time of great joy and suffering as families re-unite, old hurts and loves are revisited.  What is really going on here? 

For someone who believes that families are together for a karmic reason, the challenge is to repair damaged relationships in this lifetime.  Otherwise the inevitable will be the need to face them again in future incarnations.  No one said this is easy.  It is one of the many obstacles, a subdivision of adversity, that we are obliged to encounter in any lifetime.  After all, we are here for a reason, right?  If you have the karmic perspective in mind, it does make some sense. 

Extending a hand of friendship, grabbing the other party in a hug, doing what is contrary to what you really feel like doing (slugging the other) might just crack the shell of defensiveness that has built up over years. 

An old friend related his attempt to re-connect with two brothers.  Their problems reflected years of personality differences and business issues (details not disclosed).  My friend call for the dinner meeting and introduced the suggestion that no one bring up past grievances but try to move forward by recognizing family ties and shared memories of both deceased parents and a brother who had died tragically.  Unfortunately one brother immediately broke into a series of complaints about the past.  It was clear that he had no intention of giving up his anger and clearly no intention to reconcile with his brothers.  The meeting was a disaster and my friend paid an additional price when he got home.  His wife reamed him out for even trying.  She “knew” it wouldn’t work.

So what is the ultimate lesson?  As a wise person said, what you do to me is your karma, how I respond is mine.  But repair and reconciliation is a two way street.  The brothers will have to deal with these issues again.  But intentions do count.  They are necessary but not sufficient to accomplish karmic healing.