In 1949, several weeks before his 51st birthday, C.S. Lewis wrote a personal letter in which he reflected on the meaning and purpose of aging. He said:
Have you ever thought what it would be like if (all other things remaining as they are) old age and death had been made optional? All other things remaining: i.e. it would still be true that our real destiny was elsewhere, that we have no abiding city here and no true happiness, but the un-hitching from this life was left to be accomplished by our own will as an act of obedience and faith. I suppose the percentage of di-ers would be about the same as the percentage of Trappists is now.
I am therefore (with some help from the weather and rheumatism!) trying to profit by this new realization of my mortality. To begin to die, to loosen a few of the tentacles which the octopus-world has fastened on one. But of course it is continuings, not beginnings, that are the point. A good night’s sleep, a sunny morning, a success with my next book: any of these will, I know, alter the whole thing. Which alteration, by the bye, being in reality a relapse from partial waking into the old stupor, would nevertheless be regarded by most people as a returning to health from a “morbid” mood!
Well, it’s certainly not that. But it is a very partial waking. One ought not to need the gloomy moments of life for beginning detachment, nor be re-entagled by the bright ones. One ought to be able to enjoy the bright ones to the full and at the very moment have the perfect readiness to leave them, confident that what calls one away is better… (Letters of C. S. Lewis pg. 398, emphasis in original)
This is a favorite quote of mine, in part because I am often accused by those who know me best of spending too much time in the “morbid” mood Lewis refers to. But I agree with Lewis that it is not a matter of being morbid. I am often amazed that we all take so much pleasure in being alive given the amount of misery and pain there is in the world. The Problem of Evil is not just a philosophical excercise for me, it is deeply disquieting. It seems to me that we often keep our cheery dispositions about life by actively refusing to internalize the pain and suffering which surrounds us in the world. We refuse to empathize because it is painful, but also because it usually accomplishes nothing. Feeling terrible about children being sold into sex-slavery, or people being massacred in Darfur, or starving in Zimbabwe, or whatever, does not help any of those people. There is an interesting balance to strike between loving life and setting our hearts on this world, between indifference and pragmatically going about our lives without being depressed by what we cannot change, between wanting to live and wanting to die.
It is interesting to juxtapose this quote from Lewis with the talk from TED below (be forwarned, the video below is 22 minutes. It is an interesting 22 minutes, but I will summarize briefly below for those without time to watch. You can download to your ipod if you go to this link):
First of all, if I could grow a beard like the one this guy has, I would begin today. Seriously. The awesomeness of his beard is perhaps the most important point in this post.
For those who didn’t watch the video, this guy is a scientist who thinks we can “defeat” aging and wants to get started. He thinks that if we get going, there are people alive today who could live to be 1,000 years old. He defines defeating aging as removing the correlation between how old you are and how likely you are to die in the next year. Here are a couple of his initial points (both of with which I agree*):
- Malaria is a bad thing because it kills lots of people. Aging should be considered a bad thing for the same reason. In fact, aging kills considerably more people than malaria.
- People have developed a coping mechanism to deal with the fact that they are going to grow old and die. We cope with the fact of aging by living in a sort of “trance” in which we think aging is a good thing.
Indeed, how can we view aging as a good thing given that it leads to a slow painful death for millions of people. People who say they want to die in their sleep are obviously ignoring the 10 years that usually preceed a person’s dying in their sleep. (On a related note, I want to die in a nuclear holocaust. It would be painless and very likely to take my whole family at the same time so that no one would be left behind to mourn.) Despite the badness of death, C.S. Lewis makes the point that death is important for theological reasons. The idea that death is bad per se is a very mortality-centric view.
The inevitability of death means we never have to choose when to die, and this is what Lewis was talking about in the first part of the quote above. By avoiding that question, we avoid coming to terms with how death might look from God’s perspective. When we say God decided it was someones “time to go,” what factors do we think God considers in making such a decision? This is one of the reasons I find the discussion of euthanasia interesting (see my recent post). More than whether someone agrees or disagrees with euthanasia, I am always interested to see what kind of reasoning is brought to bear on the problem. Quite often the reasoning illustrates the trance Dr. de Grey talks about.
In addition to issues I am musing about here, there are all sorts of other interesting issues raised by the quote and video. Feel free to pontificate on any or all of them if you feel like it.
* This is the only time I ever remember using the construction “both of with which.” It is terribly awkward, yet from some reason I like it and can’t bring myself to reword it.
§ This is filed under the category “Life” which seems to make sense, but might, nevertheless, be a misuse of the category.