7: Momento Mori
Back when I was a sloppy, bearded grad student (this differs from me now… how?), I had a revelatory moment when one of my teachers, a professor of Victorian literature, challenged a group of his students: “Sure, the Victorians had a hang-up about sex. It was, more than anything else, what they were fascinated with, and, as a result, it was the one thing they couldn’t talk about it. Do you think we don’t have any taboos any more? Try talking frankly about death and mortality.”
This seemed profound to me back then because I realized instantly that he was right. In our age and culture, there are basic facts that everyone is aware of – that the place where we live is a giant ball of metal and rock, orbiting around a star (in the modern world, we’ve stopped believing it’s a flat garden, floating between heaven and hell); that we are warm-blooded mammals like many other creatures around us (not spiritual vessels, crafted by God out of spit and mud); that, as mammals, we are created in a sexual act between a male and female member of our species (not delivered from God’s baby factory by the stork); and that all animals, ourselves included, have finite lifespans that are limited by (if nothing else) the fact our biological selves are intrinsically perishable – they age and break down. Most people in our time are not terribly disturbed by any of these accepted modern truths, except the last one – the fact that we are intrinsically, unfixably, mortal. Death scares the you-know-what out of us, but we must not say so.
An interesting visualization of how short it is. More at: Wait but Why
If you have read any other pieces in this sequence of essays, you may have noted that one of my main themes here is denial and how it shapes our lives. I tend to think that a habit of rejecting reality and replacing it with the fiction of our choosing is really problematic for living intelligently and for getting along with others, but, at the same time, I also think it is a standard and necessary part of being human. In the bible it says that you can’t stare at the face of God and live. There’s a great truth there – we can’t handle reality unadorned, so we build crude representations of something we have only glimpsed in our peripheral vision – representations that look comfortably like ourselves – and call those graven images “God” – “the truth.” Well, in modern life something that generally doesn’t get incorporated into our personal picture of reality is the fundamental but unacceptable fact that we are weak and rapidly degrading bags of biochemical processes – that we are all dying. (Underlined for emphasis. I would do ALL CAPS, but then you would think I’m an even bigger a-hole.)
Denial makes us look stupid – stupid like an old man eating kale shakes for breakfast and hauling his bony ass out on a hot day, risking life, painful dehydration and limb by running a 10K, “for fun.” Curiously, our Victorian (and earlier) forefathers and foremothers had much less trouble with this, in part because infirmity and death from disease was so much more obvious in their lives (especially in childhood and past 40) and partially because they had a much more pervasive and convincing cultural mythos to counter the reality of death – their Christian religion, and the belief in an afterlife. (To see how important religion was to human sanity back then, re-read Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and see how unhinged the poets got when the truth of their religions were threatened.) Victorians hated death just as much as any modern hipster, but they couldn’t deny their mortality either, so they used really effective work-arounds to deal with it psychologically.
By and large, our modern science-based culture has removed the comforting psychological dodge of metaphysical religious myth-reality from our lives (as Matthew Arnold bemoans), and, though we still often “believe in God” (for the record, I do), we no longer live with a generally accepted religious conviction convincing us that death is not the end of everything. Though I’m a Catholic now, I grew up in a non-religious household, and was never taught to believe that when I died I would simply go to heaven. I don’t remember when I first learned about death and accepted what it meant, but I do know that I was ghoulishly fascinated by it (as I said in a previous essay, I was a weird kid) and I guess I still am. One of my earliest memories – probably about first grade – involves me cruelly reducing to tears a slightly younger friend by telling him all about death, a fact his parents had protected him from until then. He needed to know the basic truth, so I told him. Later, traveling with my parents in Europe and being lectured by my father on various historical figures, I always wanted to know first “how did they die?” I was a pretty creepy kid, I guess, but it seemed to me to be one of the most important facts in any person’s story. I was personally pretty proud of my knowledge of reality and of my no-nonsense acceptance of all that.
Of course I was a kid and, with no long, deep experience with life, I had a secret personal conviction that I was immortal. When you are a kid growing up in modern America, with adequate food, hygene and healthcare, death is not a threat, and if you are aware it is coming, it is a long, long way off. Death is so far distant to us in our callous youth as to be abstract. Sure, we see death when our grandparents (or other aged relatives or acquaintances) die, but they are so different from us as to be a different species -- like our pets are. Maybe, if tragedy strikes and a parent or a close acquaintance at school happens to die, then it becomes more real to us, but otherwise, not. Most of us go into adulthood with this secret conviction and, unlike most other childish things, we don’t necessarily put it aside.
However, as I went from adolescence to adulthood, there were things in my own life that made my own mortality increasingly real to me. My parents were older than most other people I know (I am the last child in my family, born when my mother was 43) and their health was more tenuous – my father, a heavy smoker, had serious emphysema most of my childhood. Their parents were really old – one grandparent died when I was an infant, two more when I was pre-puberty and my mother’s father came to live with us in my early teenage years, and moved to a nursing home before I went to college. I understood that people aged and died and saw it happening all around me. Old age, in particular, really made an impression on me. I couldn’t imagine ever being there myself (as Paul Simon says in his song “Old Friends,” – “how terribly strange to be seventy…”) but I saw it wasn’t fun. As the saying goes, it’s “not for sissies.” Mortality, I saw, was not the mythical creature us young people all wanted to believe it was.
And it was coming. Pretty early in adulthood, I started marveling at how other people seemed to be in denial of what we all knew was inevitable. I graduated from college in 1977, and the last quarter of the Twentieth Century saw the birth of the “Health and Personal Fitness” culture. For the first time, medical science thought it had some basic advice that medical researchers and doctors thought could help people live “longer, healthier and more productive lives,” so they started to publicize lots of useful tips: stop smoking; stop drinking heavily; don’t do drugs; lose weight; lower your cholesterol; lower your blood pressure; sleep better; get more exercise; cut down your fat, salt, sugar (and later) carbohydrate intake; eat more vegetables; eat less meat; eat less processed foods; eat more organic foods; eat more anti-oxidants; etc., etc. Of course, people didn’t really understand the medical science behind most of this (and, though I won’t go into it, a lot of the medical “findings” behind these pieces of information were incomplete, not proven by valid studies or simply wrong), but they did get this message: you can control things and fix your body.
In the culture I entered into adulthood in, the next step in this thinking was to begin privately believing, contrary to common sense, that somehow we might be able to escape aging, perhaps cheat death itself. Hence, a culture of extreme fitness began to flourish, with people doing distance running, bicycle racing, rigorous exercise routines and competitive contact sports (baseball, basketball, tennis and even football and rugby) long past the point (late thirties and early 40s) when their biomechanics (joints, tendons, muscles and bones – not to mention the cardiovascular system) could handle the strain. People began exercising to be healthy in unhealthy ways. They also began to take healthy diet ideas to fairly bizarre extremes: vegetarianism, veganism, fad diets, dietary supplements of dubious effectiveness (along with this came “Health Food” stores that essentially sold patent medicines and magical cures, all unsanctioned by the FDA or the medical establishment). In short (I may be offending you by saying this so bluntly), we began doing irrational things and performing what amounts to magical rituals in our desperation to stay alive and healthy.
I’m afraid my response to this is pretty irreverent: you may not want to believe in old age and death, but they believe in you.
Delusion is history, history is delusion
I’ve got more to say about this, but before I do I want to take a side-trip into human history, because I think it explains the roots of almost universal human foolishness. The very development of our species has been driven by the desire to extend human life and thus has pushed us towards denial of aging and death.
Paleoanthropologists say we physically became what we are somewhere between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, though a general group of human-like creatures had been loping around Africa and Eurasia for perhaps a million years. 100,000 years ago, we were scavengers, foragers and crude hunters living in small bands, using crude stone tools, and our normal (“natural”) healthy lifespan (assuming we weren’t eaten by a predator or had an accident, suffered from natural disaster or caught a disease (diseases were rarer because there were fewer of us) was a little over 30 years –after which aging began affecting our fitness and it was increasingly hard to survive. However, this is only the fossil record of the beginning of our species – I think (and some anthropologists agree with me) that the real beginnings of our species was a little later – sometime around 80 to 70 thousand years ago, when we first began to show signs of “culture” – programmed information for living that could be passed on from generation to generation, probably occasioned by the development of real language, which provided a mechanism for passing on important complicated accrued information – aka, “wisdom.” Language and culture allowed us to learn and preserve very useful information about dealing with the world and surviving, including more sophisticated tools, weapons (carved bone tools first appeared at this time – they are not easy to make) and other early technologies. This passed-on knowledge and culture probably didn’t extend our lifespans much, but it did allow more of us to survive and to spread out across the planet in search of more territory we could adapt to (by developing more culture) and exploit.
|Until circa 10,000 years ago, this is how we rolled.|
The first potential jump in human lifespan (it didn’t happen for everyone, in fact archaeologists say lifespan probably went down overall because of increased density and disease) happened sometime around 20 to 15 thousand years ago, when we developed agriculture and stopped being nomadic. This, I imagine, created the first glimmer in the human mind of the possibility of living into something like “old age.” We then began living in villages with their own food sources in farm fields, and we could abandon the physically demanding nomadic lifestyle without starving. Living in villages, old people could exist with the support of others, perhaps even making valuable contributions to the tribe/community through their accumulated skills and wisdom. As living to old age became possible, it also became something to strive for. What “old age” meant here, of course, is not what we mean today. Even into modern times, someone over 40 was considered “senior” and in early urban societies it is doubtful that anyone lived beyond 60.
|An old Roman. About 40?|
As urbanized human culture, supported by agricultural technology, developed and perfected itself between Ur (about 10,000 years ago) and Rome (2,000 years ago) – with roughly similar timeframes in Asia – average human lifespans didn’t increase much (Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century was still describing the normal human life as “nasty, brutish and short”) but what did develop was a class of people who might be expected to fare better – nobles and kings, an aristocracy. These people still didn’t usually live to what we now consider to be old age (because no human was immune to disease) but they still had the possibility of a significantly longer life, and that was perhaps the greatest perk of being a noble, and something to aspire to. Once it was possible to live better and longer, it was something everybody naturally wanted.
“Hope” was born, but it was only a slightly longer life -- not anything like immortality -- that any human could hope for right up to the 20th Century. Living standards began to improve for many with the industrial revolution, and death by starvation generally went away as a threat in the “developed” world, but death through disease and infection still stalked the homes of kings, the rich and the poor alike. Everybody knew that death was coming. With the advent of modern medicine, particularly with the development of antibiotics in the 20th Century, however, suddenly lifespans (in the developed world took a big leap forward. This was “the miracle of modern medicine,” but with miracles comes the belief in magic.
Give me liberty and give me death
I’m fully aware that what I’ve been saying in the five paragraphs above is ridiculously simplistic, and pretty inaccurate, unsupported by specific facts, etc., but my basic point is that the development of human civilization has been all about finding ways to extend human survival, which has meant teaching society that it could be extended, which is pointing us towards the false hope that it can be extended forever. We’ve been building towards this delusion for thousands of years, and you can feel the social pressure to believe in it. If you read “speculative fiction” (fantasy and science fiction), then you know that immortality is a very common theme, perhaps the most common theme, whether the plot involves vampires or cyborgs or biotech. It’s what we all desperately want because it’s what we have been working towards for so, so long.
But can we have it? Sure, someone will talk to you about aging research and try to tell you otherwise, but realistically I don’t’ think so – certainly not in the lifetimes of anyone reading this at the present moment. You may want to “believe in the future,” but if you do, I’ve got a freezer for your disembodied head in Scottsdale, Arizona that you can spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars on… until the company goes bankrupt and they turn the power off. No, we can’t just turn off cell death. No, your mind isn’t some static data file (like the file this essay is written on) that can be uploaded onto a server someplace. As Eliot says in the fantasy movie “ET” – “this is reality, Greg!” – and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to give you a re-write of the basic story. What I’m saying once again: you, I and everyone else is “doomed to die” (poem by Sauron) and we’d better get used to it. Yes, it’s a big bummer.
So why be so unpleasant and keep saying this, when delusion is so much friendlier and easier to work with? I’m not sure that I’m completely advocating for living with brutal truth, but I also see some huge problems in living with delusion.
I’m overweight (I like to eat and find food fun and comforting), which is not currently life-threatening for me (perhaps…) but is certainly not healthy. As a consequence, I feel a certain amount of disapproval, unspoken and spoken, and even occasional shaming from the considerably more health-obsessed people around me. I should go on a diet, change my lifestyle, learn a new regimen for survival, I’m told, like this is a spiritual failing. “Don’t you want to live to see your grandchildren?” (For the record, none of my children has expressed any interest to date in producing any.) “You don’t want to die do you?” No, like you, of course I don’t… at least not right away. Life good. Death… well, not great. But here’s what I’m thinking when some well-intentioned person is shaming me: rather than bullying me into following your “healthy” (is it really?) diet while you exercise your aging body into orthoscopic surgery -- please stop and think a bit about where all this is leading.
As I said, I’m a late child, and, consequently I have seen first hand a lot of aging and death. I’ve seen grandparents grow old, go into nursing homes and slowly die. I’ve seen the same thing with parents and inlaws. What I’ve seen is that we don’t live forever… ever, and we don’t die easily. What happens to most of us who live to “ripe old age,” unless we succumb to slow death by cancer or fairly rapid death by heart disease or a rare illness or accident, is that we end up needing (often imposed on us necessarily by our children, against our irrational aging wills) some kind of long-term nursing care, which (I can’t sugar-coat this) is the opposite of a pleasant and dignified end. I know this is not everyone, but I have lived with three different aging relatives who all fervently wished to die years before they finally did. I could go into really graphic detail, but I won’t be that cruel. Other people are fortunate, I guess, in that their minds go before their bodies, and they don’t know the grueling end (though their children do). Is this what you are denying yourself pasta for or running that daily mile in order to be able to experience? I didn’t think so. Sure, you don’t want to die, but how do you want to die when it inevitably comes? Death is an important detail of life. Think about it. I do.
OK, it doesn’t make me happy or even re-assure me to dwell on this, but it also doesn’t scare me and I’d prefer not to be ruled by fear. The one thing I want out of life is not control, but some calm awareness of how I’m living, some intentionality. A sane, thinking person knows there is no such thing as control… but there is such a thing as understanding and meaning. If I give into delusion for comfort, I will know somewhere at the heart of myself that I’m living a fiction. Perhaps, as I’ve been saying occasionally in these essays, such a fiction is unavoidable, but I’d prefer not to totally give in to that.
Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas: Momento mori
|“Vanitas” by Jan Sande van Hemessan|