The web of our life is of a mingled yarn

I’m getting old now and although I don’t regret the slow accumulation of the lately-wilting years, I’ve noticed that a lot of people do -or at least say they do. I’m not sure how well they’ve thought it through, however; even if they somehow managed to continue their lives in a candy shop, they’d soon be tired of sweetness. What gives life its value are the variations we encounter; age is just another one of those.

No, give me Age I say, but not for long -not until I’m too old. I do not wish to live forever, even if it were as a younger, healthier me; it took me years to come to that conclusion; I did not always think that way.

I remember when I was in my middle years and still enjoying some salad days, I found a lump that the specialist to whom I was referred thought might be malignant. She suggested a biopsy but it couldn’t be performed for a day or two. Until that moment, I suspect I had not given much thought to personal mortality -none, actually- and the whole chain of events seemed… well, unfair. I remember walking along a forest trail by my house the next day feeling sorry for myself, and yet totally enchanted by the trees that surrounded me -trees that were already not only older than I was, but which would in all likelihood outlive me. Their bark seemed so rough and firm against my hand that, unmolested, it would withstand the years unscarred; the needles of the cedar, whose drooping branches stroked my face, would smell as sweet with any other name. The nature that I would soon become would go on as if I had never been, and any tiny increment I might add, would be a drop, if that, in their ocean. Still, I did not wish to die –then. Sometime, obviously, but not then, not yet…

But on that occasion, Time itself was remedial, and what seemed intolerable in my fate, became anodyne -a gift that, once opened, seemed to grant a rain check to a life of halting progress.

I think about death differently all these years hence: I would be honoured to become the soil that helps to nourish that very forest; the ash that provides cover for their roots. My concerns about an early  demise was, I think, more a matter of its sudden, unannounced arrival. I have never been afraid of death, nor begrudged my autumn years; if there were any quibbles, they would almost certainly have been about the timing. At forty, I wanted more, but now… now, I’ve eaten what I think I needed; I’m currently finishing off dessert.

Still, I’m always on the lookout for essays or articles that challenge my opinions, and I chanced upon one on immortality that I enjoyed. It was written by Paul Sagar, in the department of political economy (of all things) at King’s College, London. It was an clever synopsis, I think.

As Sagar observes about the concept of immortality, ‘after a certain amount of living, human life would become unspeakably boring. We need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going But after enough time has passed, we will have experienced everything that we, as individuals, find stimulating. We would lack what Williams [the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams] called ‘categorical’ desires: ie, desires that give us reasons to keep on living, and instead possess only ‘contingent’ desires: ie, things that we might as well want to do if we’re alive, but aren’t enough on their own to motivate us to stay alive. For example, if I’m going to carry on living, then I desire to have my tooth cavity filled – but I don’t want to go on living simply in order to have my cavity filled.’ I’m reminded, of course, of that intriguing movie Groundhog Day.

Along those same lines, the moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University, writes that ‘because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over.’ It’s not so much that immortality would not serve our needs, but that  ‘if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are.’ We wouldn’t get what we expect from life, ‘namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever.’

So, in a way, immortality, far from being a blessing, would be an affliction. Anathema. Yes, it would take away our fear of death, but instead substitute, in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ‘curses not loud, but deep’.

But what if, as Sagar wonders, rather than railing at the inevitability of an end, rather than thinking of oneself trapped in the binary of an either/or fate -one of death or not death- we discovered there was an option of ending life at a time of our choosing? Various countries, already offer medically assisted death (subject to some rather stringent conditions, of course) for those for whom prolonged suffering would otherwise be a prison, a dehumanizing punishment. What sort of reward would a sentence of immortality be then?

And yet, perhaps there is another option: rather than death coming upon us either too soon, or too late, maybe the immortality some of us are actually seeking is the immortality of a peace of mind that accepts the timing as not only inevitable, but reasonable. Satisfactory. Something received with the anticipation one might experience at the beginning of a trip. It is a journey, after all.

And maybe -just maybe- Shakespeare’s Juliet, speaking of her lover Romeo, was peeking through a tear in the curtain the rest of us have not yet found: ‘When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.’


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