FOURSCORE IS ENOUGH
Every birth is no less than twins: life and death. As soon as there is birth, death stalks the new life. Nature designed it that way. What nature had in mind is biological balance. It is obvious that if life had not included death as a twin and that if everything that had received life were still around, life would be piled upon life, every species of which would be gasping and grasping for earth and air and whatever else needed for it to continue. Life would be a living death rather than a life and a death.
A world without death would be the creation of some omnipotent sentimentalist, the kind that places pictures and mawkish poetry in papers on Memorial Day, or of some wizard holed up in a lab with the genome reduced to a keyboard by which he arranges the genes and introduces cellular cement at critical places to regenerate where atrophy has set in, giving men and women the opportunity to endure the same quotidian quandary and live through the same drama of bliss and agony for two hundred years plus instead of Jehovah’s bequest of threescore and ten.
The advocates of working toward life everlasting on earth with a Wal-Mart and a McDonald’s at hand have met with resistance. One ethicist appalled by the prospect speaks bluntly: “We can’t ban this research but we can make it socially despicable.” One backing mother nature says: “The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual whether he knows it or not.” And another argues that the natural ambitions of family and career can be satisfied within a life span of 80 years. Amen.
A theologian of Christian persuasion opposes lengthening life on the ground that doing so delays the day of the faithful’s union with God. A Rabbi, on the other hand, without belief in a hereafter and with an eye on this world, believes that everything that can be done should be done to prolong life.
A Catholic theologian is irate: He criticizes the search for immortality as a “pagan and sub-Christian quest and an enterprise driven by the essentially amoral and mindless dynamic of the technological imperative joined to an ignoble fear of death.” His excessive protest manifests a concern that scientists will usurp the need for salvation, the unique employment of ecclesiastics.
Now into my 93rd year, I have, by virtue of having lived so long, the credentials to speak on this issue. Up front I admit to being a pagan, a secular humanist in moderation, an immoderate Luddite, and a reasonable romantic. Each facet of my being reacts to the prospects of extended life differently. As a pagan I reluctantly agree with the Catholic, even though he seems to take a dim view of pagans and sub-Christians, whatever they are. I agree that it is revolting and disgusting to read about Frankensteins in workshops delving into the mysteries of nature with a view to clone species and to prolong life by all manner of weird, strange and unnatural manipulations, transplants, organ-production and by works heretofore considered only by the minds of latter-day alchemists and madmen with knowledge supplied by the Devil or by those who have sold their souls to Mephistopheles.
I hasten to say, lest some pagan god trip me up for apostasy, that I do not as the Christians do oppose longer life because it delays union with God. I do not believe that life after death is any more than a return of my substance to the earth to fertilize other life. My consciousness, declared an eternal soul by robed intermediaries interested in my allegiance in exchange for assistance in transferring it from this world to the next, is no more, I suspect, than an electromagnetic field that collapses when death shuts off the life current that flows in my being.
The Catholic is irate owing to the challenge of the technological imperative to the raison d’etre of the church: that is, the administering of sacraments that are prerequisites to salvation. With indefinite life and no fear of death who is interested in an institution that sells life hereafter? I have preached that, if the church were to say that its only mission is to teach Jesus’ moral challenge and help mankind to live it and not to assure people that through its rituals and intercession life eternal is a certainty, the priests and preachers would surely be heard only by the choir and a reduced choir at that.
Jews do not believe in an after life, so I can understand why a Rabbi would advocate prolonging life by every means possible. To some extent I can understand his view, but not entirely. I flinch emotionally, some aspect of my being recoils, when I read about scientists using stem cells to reproduce organs that are to be used to replace worn out organs. There is something about such a procedure that is blatant violation of the laws of nature. But violating, or attempting to violate, the laws of nature has been man’s preoccupation ever since he was evicted from Eden.
Nature made man to work. He found, though, that work of a physical kind is an inconvenience and discomfort to him, so he has put lesser folks or machines to work and used his leisure to pleasure himself, the consequence of which has been the deterioration of his heart and other organs. But rather than give up the leisure, he devised means to replace the abused heart; and he plans to replace, if he can conquer the obstacles, every organ that sputters and conks out in man’s engine with no regard to how profligate and ruinous has been his lifestyle. One can forgive another seven times seventy; but when it comes to footing the bill for multiple transplants for an incorrigible hedonist, there has to be an end. Death quiets the blood.
I am a Luddite. I lived when a man learned to work with a hoe and a scythe rather to play with a golf club and a tennis racket. I have watched the escalation of technology with at first excitement and then concern and now scorn and contempt. What is the end of all this? What if man comes to know all truth, to be able to transport himself to any place in a flash, to communicate with anyone at any time, to do anything or all things, to have all joys with no sorrows, and to live however long he wills? What then? The sensible will tend a garden and await the end, working humbly amid the mysteries of creation.
As a romantic I think of A. E. Housman’s lament: “And since to look at things in bloom / Fifty springs are little room, About the woodland I will go / To see the cherry hung with snow.” And I think how true, having now even less left than little room. So I might consider a reprieve from death indefinitely for room to go about the woodland in spring and see the cherry blooming and wearing white for Eastertide.