People have always aspired to live long. In a brutally short and unpredictable life merely outliving others could be looked upon as an accomplishment, a blessing. Besides, old age brought with it a measure of status, even veneration. A mere idiot became a sage by dint of simply clinging to life. But desirable as it may have been longevity was clearly understood to be a fluke, an answer to a wish or a prayer. No one deluded themselves that it was within their power to affect it.
Not so now.
Living longer and longer is now a science. It is the dominant aspiration of an aging population reared since infancy to believe in its power to control destiny. Getting old and staying healthy has gone from being a rare and lucky break to an obsession. And a multi-billion dollar health and wellness business complex fans and feeds the fantasy that old age and decrepitude can be beaten.
Put simply, the delusion of control states that if you live a “healthy lifestyle”, meaning that you avoid smoking, drinking, the sun, the air, tap water, cell phones, sweets, all non-“organic” food, and in addition spend every spare minute of your life in a gym, you will not get sick, live to climb mountains at 88, and continue to date into your 90s. Young people may believe this, old people should know better, yet they don’t.
What the people who make their billions on drugs, wellness books, and plastic surgery don’t want us to know is something we shouldn’t need anyone to tell us; every year added to your life adds a factor of risk to your health, regardless of how “healthy” you are. Getting old is the real danger to your health, not what you do, and unfortunately that’s the one thing neither you nor anyone else has any control over. A 45 year old falling and cracking their hip is a rarity, at 85 a certainty. In fact being past 80 and NOT having a life-threatening, debilitating, or at least hugely limiting disease is a freak of nature worthy of a news article. With that prospect a statistical certainty, staying alive is the name of the game, at all cost, even hooked up to a life support machine. The quality of that life has become secondary.
I beg to differ.
Being healthy for me means being able to move about unaided, to have the full use of my senses and my mind, to be free of pain. These are minimum requirements, the lowest benchmark that might justify the effort demanded by living. If these requirements can be met, they make the aggravations of life worthwhile. As it is, most geriatrics today, with their arthritic pain, truckloads of medications, and replaced hips, shuffling along with their walkers, swaddled in diapers, or brainless with Alzheimers aren’t even in the ballpark. The delusion that this fate can be averted is nothing but wishful thinking and a marketing ploy for snake-oil merchants. A few rare exception to this dismal picture actually prove the rule.
And still death is always regarded as worse than living, no matter how horrific and pointless life seems to be. It is nothing but a mindless prejudice. If the minimum benchmark of a pain-free, mobile, and lucid life cannot be met, wouldn’t the alternative of dying make far more sense?
Ask any educated person what was the gift that Prometheus stole from the gods and brought down to earth and they’ll say Fire. But few people know about the Greek belief that there was a second gift Prometheus gave us - Hope. And, unlike fire, that one was a curse.
Hope as a curse? It may strike us at first as absurd. Isn’t hope the only thing that stands between us and despair; the thing that keeps us cheerful, optimistic, and ever so American? There is something counter-intuitive in viewing hope as undesirable, yet the Greeks weren’t alone in their dim opinion of Hope. The Buddhists (and the Hindus before them) also had bad things to say about it. To them hope, like most other human mental constructs, was a delusion, a strategy designed by our brain for the sole purpose of avoiding reality.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher, recommends that you start every day with a brief meditation on the only sure things in life:
As a morning meditation it is a pretty rude awakening I’d say. You may be inclined to soften the blow by mixing in a little bit of hope in there, perhaps hope you’ll stay young (“youthful” as the euphemism for aging goes). Maybe you’ll be the one person who lives to be 100 without ever being sick, or, who knows, maybe you’ll live forever in another dimension? Try this trick and it may make you feel better, but you will have erected a bullet-proof firewall between you and reality.
Living in hope is living in delusion. It is an opiate, an addictive drug. Hope is what fuels lotteries and Vegas and romance fantasies. It is the bedrock upon which all religions are built, and the fodder for the snake-oil merchants of the “prosperity churches” and the billion dollar industries of “Be all you can be”.
Hope perpetuates human misery by masking its symptoms, like Tylenol.
I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s morning meditation also for its humor content. Can you think of a better example for the absurdity of life? It’s hilarious. Here we have this mysterious, magnificent phenomenon of being alive, and the only things we can count on are the things we are most afraid of, getting old, getting sick, and dying. Thanks a lot. Why couldn’t life guarantee us instead happiness, or continuous health no matter what we snacked on or drank? Why couldn’t we keep life forever, right here, not in some ill-defined after-life? And not just human life either, how about making our cat or dog immortal?
What a bum deal we got.
I have no doubt that the author of life on earth was a humorist, some cosmic Mark Twain. I believe he threw Hope into the mix simply to keep the comedy going.
“Live long and prosper,” say the Vulcans on Star Trek. “Bis Hundred und Zwanzig” (until 120) was my parents’ version of the blessing for old age. My dad actually bargained a bit, wishing himself to live only to 119. His reason, “your mother should have at least one pleasant year without me”. As it turned out, he gave my mother many more such years since he died at 82 and she lumbered on for another ten years. Were those extra years pleasant? I seriously doubt it. Sure, she enjoyed seeing her grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up, but her horizon was behind her as were the subjects of her conversations. When she focused on the present it was to inventory her various ailments, her pains, the sorrow of missing her husband. She put on a smiling show to make her visitors feel better, but it was a visible effort as the range of her conversation and mobility narrowed. Eventually the curtain started dropping, like a drawn out fade out at the end of a movie. And still her body hung on for another three long years.
Whenever I asked my sister whether I should fly home to visit my mom, her answer was always the same, “What’s the point? She won’t know who you are”.
So much for “Bis Hundred und Zwanzig” as a blessing not a curse.
When I contemplate the Boomers’ determination to turn their inevitable decline into a rebirth, a youthful defiance of physical reality, I am overcome by embarrassment, being one of them. I am 68 and I love it when older people tell me “you’re a spring chicken”, even as I chug my arthritis, anti-depressant, osteoporosis, liver cleansing cocktail of medications and multi-vitamins. I am in good shape all considered. Like my fellow Boomers, I exercise, ride my bike, and gloat about being able to swim half a mile without croaking. I look at my reflection in shop windows and if the image is hazy enough I can delude myself that it’s a youthful figure I see reflected there. But then there is that morning shave, when the reflection is up close and brutal (especially with my glasses on). I can fake my hearing loss by talking more and listening less but it’s starting to take its toll on my wife and friends. At the grocery checkout the cashier adds the senior discount without asking. I am taken aback every time.
And yet all around me, friends as old as I dump their wives, stock up on Viagra, and shack up with ambitious young career women with buns of steel, the age of their daughters, and start making babies, again! Never mind that those babies will be barely in junior high when their dad will shuffle in with his walker. Others train for the marathon, or climb the Mont Blanc; the women get their fourth facelift, breast implants, teeth implants, hair implants, everything implants. Some fanatics restrict their diet to blue green algae, raw vegetables, and nuts, like chipmunks. Some stop eating altogether, believing that it is caloric intake that causes their cells to age. Enterprising young people have created a multi-billion market of research, workshops, and supplements that promise Boomers the elusive fountain of youth and life eternal they crave.
I must be the last Victorian, but I find old people acting young distasteful. It’s like not knowing your station in life. I try to imagine Lord Tennyson with his flowing beard, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, playing Frisbee, or Edith Wharton in skin-tight leotards, jogging with ear-buds in her ears and an iPhone strapped to her arm. It is all so undignified this desperate act of seeming young. I don’t mind staying young in spirit but affecting being young when you are not is “sketchy” (as my daughter would say). I won’t even start commenting on “old-people-sex”, the revolting Hollywood genre so popular these days, wherein really wrinkled yesterday’s stars reenact aging producers’ (and audiences’) lurid fantasies.
It is all so sad. The effort, the self-deception, and mostly the telltale signs of relentless aging that escape the façade and mock the pretense. The spotted, wrinkled hands (there are no “hand-lifts” it seems), the huffing, the frequent visits to the bathroom. And up above in the rafters, the 16 ton weight waiting to drop, like in a Monty Python skit; the wheelchair, the portable dialysis and oxygen tanks, and the real biggie - Alzheimer’s.
All told, aspiring to a long life is a very questionable plan. “Enjoying old age” too is a curious expression. What is there to enjoy, your hernia? It is not even wishful thinking - just an oxymoron. The facts are plain. The longer you live the more decrepit you will be. No amount of AARP spin can alter this simple fact. Like an old car, the longer you run the more things will fall apart and more often you’ll be visiting your mechanic. Unlike a vintage car you can never be restored.
Ouch! That hurts. That is something no self-respecting Boomer wants to hear. We are the generation that will live forever.
Well, a dose of realism doesn’t hurt. I have had a great life so far. At 68 the things that work still outnumber the ones that don’t. I can walk, I can eat pretty well anything. I love my coffee, a good Hungarian salami, ice cream, a glass of wine, a cigar. I have my eyesight, sort of. I breathe without external devices. But above all, I have my mind, still ticking away, coming up with ideas, asking questions, being amazed, being amused.
The other day my wife told me I shouldn’t wear my iPhone in my pocket because it can cause cancer. Well, I already have cancer. Besides, what is the point of having a cell phone if you can’t have it on you? I mean, if I were 35 and giving up my cell phone could extend my life by a few youthful years, maybe I’d consider, but at my age what would I gain, a few more old decrepit years? Thank you, but no thank you.
It reminds me of the famous quip of Mark Twain when a lady admonished him for smoking so much: “Mr. Twain, if you quit this filthy habit you could add ten years to your life”. Twain replied, “Madam, ten years without a smoke ain’t worth it”.
One of the few advantages of being on the cusp of decrepitude as I am is realizing that you no longer have to be careful. You no longer have to read the labels or weigh your food. The worst that can happen to you is having a few less miserable years in a wheelchair.
When I look backward I am thankful that I was lucky to have a fabulous life, rewarding in its adventures, heartwarming in its relationships. It was an incredible feast. Now it’s time for desert. A few more years of continued adventures? Perhaps. How many? There is no telling. But it doesn’t matter. What’s left is just the icing on the cake, the desert. Every day or month or year is a bonus.
Imagine having had the best meal of your life, and then when the desert arrives it’s so-so, maybe even awful. Would you spoil the experience and swallow it anyway? Would you ruin the meal because of the desert? I wouldn’t. So, as long as I taste this desert and it’s delicious I’d be happy to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. As long as I can maintain at least what I have now, I’m game. But hand me a desert full of disability, loss of memory, incontinence, hip replacement, chemotherapy, a walker, and the stimulating environment of a retirement home with its weekly yoga class, and I push my desert plate away, wipe my mouth with the cloth napkin, push my chair back, thank the host, and I’m out of here.
I’ve had my meal. The desert I can take or leave.
Old age is like a cherry on top, an extra, not that important but nice. If the meal was great who gives a damn about the cherry.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)