Thursday, February 4, 2010

Old age and death

I used to think of old age and death as cruel and foreign -- as unjust and undeserved punishments imposed upon us.

As I've gotten older, that's changed. I'm starting to see them as intentional -- and as merciful.

First, death. It used to seem to horrible. But as I grow up, it seems more and more like a merciful sleep. As though I could die tomorrow without fear, because either a) it's just sleeping, or b) there's some sort of eternal life afterwards. I'm thinking a is more likely, but it doesn't really matter, because neither sound so bad.

And what would eternal life be after all? Would I really want to do that? When I was young and spoiled and got whatever I wanted, sure. But now I'm old and I have a lot of responsibilities. I figure as I grow older, my responsibilities will increase. Those are exhausting. Rest sounds good. Because adulthood is not as fun as childhood.

And then I started to think about old age, and how it makes life more and more uncomfortable. Almost mercifully, it prepares us for death by making life less fun. We grow tired just as it becomes time to rest.

I tend to think the Designer(s) gave us death because eternal life would be cruel punishment on a planet of so much work and pain; and they gave us old age to make death more appealing than scary.


Alex Balashov said...

Well, in all fairness, it does seem a little circular to say that old age is a merciful preparation for death and death is a welcome escape from old age...

Alex Balashov said...

Also, your argument - although obviously not having this explicit characteristic - could be construed as endorsement of immediate suicide.

Increasing responsibilities already make life burdensome and not fun, and it's only going to get worse. Why not reach for the logical conclusion instead of prolonging this miserable process?

ungtss said...

Incisive thoughts appreciated as always:).

There is a certain circularity to it ... but I'm not sure circularity makes the argument invalid, since I'm not arguing any sort of causation.

For instance, you could say "Cars are designed with engines to move the chassis, and a chassis to support the engines ..." circular, but not invalid ...

But suppose a designer wants us to die for some other reason. To keep us in check, for instance. To keep us from growing too powerful -- too much like them.

Then old age would serve that purpose, AND also be a break for us. And old age would make that death less scary.

All speculation, of course. No science in sight. Just an impression I had as I realized that old age and death don't seem scary anymore.

On the suicide front, I'd say I don't see suicide as the "logical conclusion" ... there's a big jump from "is" to "want to" and "ought," and just because old age is a merciful introduction to death doesn't mean I want or should want either right now ... although when I'm 90, rickety and senile, I might look at things differently.

Alex Balashov said...

Even though I'm somewhat younger than you (just turned 24), I've become far more acutely conscious of my mortality in the last few years and have tried to comfort myself with similar views of death. Nevertheless, I don't harbour the illusion that I would actually feel so at peace and mellow if I were, in fact, dying, at least anytime in the near future. As usual, I think it comes down to the following two psychological dimensions, as irrational as they may seem:

1) Fear of pain and/or suffering involved in process of dying;

2) A fundamental attachment to the experience of life, from the mundane to the more cosmological; I guess one might say it is offensive to one's basic sentimentality to have to say good-bye to all those things and never see them again.

#2 is the real heart of it. I would still feel troubled and psychologically agitated about my impeding death even if I had the option of a completely painless, more or less instant death, which isn't outside the realm of medical possibility, although apprehension about whether it's genuinely that way would probably get the best of me.

The favoured evolutionary account of why certain things happen more as one gets older - in particular, stochastic events that are essentially random but subject to certain probabilistic factors, such as cancer - is that nature is concerned only with bolstering the health of those capable of reproduction and short-term nature. Thus, after a certain age, people become useless from a species propogation point of view.

This doesn't cleanly account for why men are equally subject to the health indicia of old age as women, since men can inseminate a woman at pretty much any age, though.

ungtss said...

I agree with you 100% about the causes of the fear of death, and what it feels like. i think we do have -- for some reason -- a cosmological attachment to our own existence ...

when i was younger, i felt those feelings much more acutely. i think it was most intense when I was 10 -- i used to cry late into the night thinking my life was 1/8 over.

In the past 2-3 years, however, that feeling has been spontaneoulsy fading.

Not by any effort on my part to console myself ... it's just sort of been happening.

i think it might be because my fundamental attachment to the experience of life has been fading ... and i'm trying to figure out what caused that.

i hear you on the materialist understanding of the purpose of death ... but it's always seemed like question begging to me. we die because we grow old. we can no longer reproduce because we grow old. But why grow old at all?

Anna said...

It sounds like fundamental detachment from the experience of life would be a classic symptom of depression, but I don't know if that's what makes death easier to reconcile. I would add a #3 to Mr. Balashov's list, which is that there is a feeling of anticipation for exciting things to come and/or things that are still left undone.

It's strange: being a kid is fun, but so is being an adult. Adults can make more choices than kids, and have more autonomy. The responsibilities that come with being an adult are actually really fun. Caring for a family, and maintaining property that you own are much more fun than homework and bedtimes. Also, with old age usually comes wisdom, which I think makes life decidedly more fun.

The idea that death is merciful to let us rest is an interesting one, that I have been thinking about. I think our 20s and 30s are a little early to long for merciful rest, but what do you think?

Anna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ungtss said...

i agree with everything you said, my dearest:).