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.