How long will we live? Who knows? “The future’s not ours, to see; Que sera sera”. That Doris Day song, written when I was a teen, is the theme for this post. There are lots of reasons why it’s best that we can’t predict the future, beyond educated guesses. For one, it’s ridiculous to believe we could forsee all the outcomes. For another, we’d mess it up, for ourselves and everyone our life involves. For a third, we’d be obsessed with trying to change and control it, and could think of nothing else. There are other reasons I’ll discuss later.
I was born just as WWII began. Will I die just as WWIII begins? Only One Person knows the future, but he’s not giving signs, let alone speaking directly, as he reportedly did in Abrahamic biblical accounts. As it’s said today, ‘Nothing is certain but Death and Taxes’; but even that ‘certainty’ doesn’t tell when or how much. For me, the quick answers are ‘Soon, I hope’ and ‘Too much’.
But seriously, we do find more and more people talking and writing about death. Why that’s the case is obvious in some ways, and only a guess in others. The Covid pandemic with it’s many variants is an obvious reason for increased death reports, both to identify the dead, and to give information about the deaths’ causes – Covid or other – and regulations, statistics and approaches for controlling the Pandemic.
Another reason for increased death notices is simply that they’ve been an everyday news item of interest for centuries – the obituaries – especially about rich and famous people. This grows in proportion to the reach of the media and the size of the audience, both of which are worldwide today. I was surprised to learn the earliest obituaries were part of a ‘newsletter’ – the Acta Diurna (Daily Acts) – ordered by Caesar in 59 B.C.! They reported daily events in Rome, including the death of important figures.
The information, commentary, disinformation and polarized opinions about all this give the media another market in audiences who want some emotional distraction from the troubles of reality. Seeing and/or hearing how hard other people’s lives are can give us some perspective on our own lives. It may even help us empathize with our neighbors. There’s been no lack of people facing domestic abuse, loneliness, insecurity, overwork, sickness, disability, being housebound, etc., everywhere, and throughout history. But today’s press, advertisers, non-profits, and social media have more effective tools. E.g., they know a single photo, live interview, or video record of real people can ‘put a face’ on the report which is worth more than volumes of statistics. A picture is worth 1000 words, in terms of appeal and money.
Long ago, Aristotle in his Poetics discussed the societal and ethical value of going to theaters to see the tragedies of great classic poets, like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. He spoke of Catharsis, which is the purification or purging of unworthy emotions (especially pity and fear), mainly through art. Euripides was the last, most inventive, most tragic, and most praised of the 3. His work The Bacchae – performed after his death in the hillside theater below the Acropolis, shown here – depicts the vengeance Dionysus took on King Pentheus and his mother for their ‘slander’. They were saying he wasn’t the child of Zeus. Dionysus’ history goes back to the mid-13th C. BC, and he has some awesome powers: “god of the grape-harvest, winemaking, orchards and fruit, vegetation, fertility, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre in ancient Greek religion”. Don’t take the kids to see The Bacchae; it’s ‘explicitly’ violent.
By contrast Roman theaters were huge spaces to provide entertainment for ordinary citizens, primarily as means to control and indoctrinate the public for the rulers’ benefit. The colosseum could hold up to 50,000 spectators, over 3 times the number of the Athens theater. It also assigned seating according to social status. Upper levels equal lower status – farther from the action. Level 1 held the Emperor’s box, Senators’ seats (named) and Vestal Virgins!? Level 2 the Equites (Knights). Level 3 ordinary citizens and Plebs. Level 4 poor Plebs. Level 5 women and the poor who sat or stood on wood benches, in what I would call the Peanut Gallery.
For Aristotle, the cathartic value of tragic theater was personal nobility – not to amuse the lower classes. Yes, he was a sexist snob, but his point about cathartic effects of serious theater is still valid. Where does our society stand today?
Returning to our topic, how should one approach aging? I think there are two radically different ways. One is trying to stay (or look) young, and spending the remaining years having the best time possible, whether or not there’s something more important to follow, about which we have various degrees of uncertainty. The other is trying to grow old wisely and inwardly, despite the uncertainty and with hope. I think we must choose; there’s no happy medium.
I’m interested in this topic both because I’m an octagenarian ‘elder’, and because my current hobby is writing about and critiquing societal trends. In the ocean of recent Covid statistics, one category grabbed my attention – Deaths by ‘unnatural causes’. What does that mean? Causes are mixed, but death is a natural effect, of course. It’s natural for every living thing to die eventually, but some of them go dormant for a very LONG time. A 2020 BBC article reports that living microbes, aged 100 Billion years, were found in some deep sea-bed slime. (That’s about a fifth the age of Earth – formed 450 Billion years ago!)
Are deaths by Tsunami, lightning strike or still birth natural? Is starvation? Crib death (SIDS)? Most deaths have an element of human choice, either by the dead person or by others. Compare falling out the window, jumping out the window, being dropped out the window. Contrast suicide, matricide, homicide, genocide. Whether there was some ‘golden age’ of goodness, or will be a future age when the ‘lamb lies down with the lion’, is unknown. Anthropologists find that people have always killed each other, from primitive sacrifices to contemporary wars. The most common justification seems to be – to please the gods (or The God).
Why is there a natural fascination – even a guilty pleasure – in hearing accounts of pain and death? Marquis de Sade’s sadism comes to mind for the former. It’s hard to conceive the range of horrible torture and killing, and the claims for its justification; yet conceive we continue to do. Even reporting such things can provide a titillating pleasure, like voyeurism. Burn her at the stake!; put him on ‘The Rack!’, or in ‘The Iron Maiden!’, or under ‘The Widow (guillotine)!’. Why would people give nicknames to these horrors?! A gun accident, a bullet shot at a thief, or a sniper hitting a child. When are they justified? Causes of death range from appalling to ridiculous; from dropped nuclear bombs to slipping on a banana peel. The choice to kill is made by an individual, a society, or a nation (through its leaders). Motives (always personal) are honorable, or evil, or non-existent (e.g., an accident).
A natural cause that concerns me – and how to handle it – is dying of old age. The number of elders as a fraction of the population in communities, states and nations has been growing steadily for a long time. This leaves more oportunity to muse and worry about the end. Many commentators suggest old age is a wonderful chance to empty the bucket list. Other’s say it’s a happy time to be free of professional obligations. And some people simply deny the inevitable, and do whatever they can to be ‘Forever 21’ (That company, by the way, filed for Chap. 11 in 2020.)
I saw a recent photo of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and was surprised to find he’s just 17 years younger than I. This started me wondering what his plans might be for the future of his company, his own life and family, and society at large. I was surprised to discover he’s very knowledgeable in public health matters. Long before Covid (in 2017) he gave Forbes an interview that was strikingly prescient. He predicted that another world-wide epidemic would come in the next 10 to 15 years, and in the first year, could kill 30 Million people – numbers comparable to SARS, and other historic plagues. Here’s an article from StatNews.com giving some statistics about pandemics, including the Black Death and Plague that hit Provence France in 1720, and comparing its ‘dithering’ mismanagement to Trump’s ignorant approach to Covid 19.
Now and then, with more ‘free time’ than I like since retirement, I’ve been reading books recommended by various sources, mostly to get ideas for blog posts. A couple weeks ago I picked up writer and humorist Daniel Martin Klein’s thought-provoking Travels With Epicurus – published in 2014. As a philosophy teacher, I knew Epicurus was an atheist, so he had little to worry about, except learning how not to worry, and live in the moment. But many of Klein’s statements and citations are ambiguous with regard to his own beliefs. Why do his beliefs matter? Because those who think there’s a ‘life after death’ can experience different outcomes – not always happy.
After considerable research, I believe Klein is a believer. He agrees (p. 140) with atheist Christopher Hitchens, that organized religion ‘ought to have a great deal on its conscience’ for how they try to brainwash their kids (and I concur). But he adds “this does not stop me from yearning for a spiritual dimension to my life, athough I am not clear what that would mean”. He goes on to critique other modern atheists, like Freud and Richard Dawkins who want everything to be scientific. He believes (and again I agree) that religion is not scientific, and most people in history have accepted ‘unproveable’ ideas from trust produced by their feelings and experience. I would add, materialists load the argument in their favor, by saying ‘show me the evidence’; but all they will accept as evidence is what time and space can measure. I find useful ideas in Epicurus, and in Klein. (We’re the same age.)
Klein wrote the book while on Hydra – a tiny Greek island – visiting a Greek friend, and learning the Greek manner of aging. (He later admits he may be oversimplifying ‘Greekness’). I’d like to travel his and other routes as well, as I used to, if health allowed. But we were 10 years younger then. Is he still chipper? Here’s a long list of Klein’s quotes taken from Good Reads. I like the first three:
“When my father-in-law, Jan Vuijst, a Dutch Reformed minister, was on his deathbed, I had a deeply intimate conversation with him – as it turned out, my last conversation with him. He said to me, ‘It was a privilege to have lived.’ The soulful gratitude of that simple statement will never leave me.”
“Companionship was at the top of Epicurus’ list of life’s pleasures. He wrote, ‘Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.’”
“To my surprise, I find the most relevant commentary on a marriage that continues into the sunset years comes from the radical German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who, in an atypically practical frame of mind, wrote, ‘When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory.’”
Unfortunately, the 2nd and 3rd quotes don’t apply to this old unmarried man. I have many friends, but can’t travel to see them, given physical limits. And being ‘IT and AI challenged’, and hard of hearing, distant communication is … oh well … Don’t complain (except to other old men, as Klein suggests).
When I was young, my cousins on Mother’s (Scottish) side joked about how our mothers were hyper-conscientious, to the point of guilt, self-deprecation and discomfort if anyone thanked them. For some reason we called this trait a Swedish Conscience. Others call it a Catholic conscience. On Father’s side, which actually was Nordic (and German), that didn’t happen. But here’s an example: ‘Why did I say that to her? I probably hurt her feelings. I’m embarrased to tell you. No, I’m saying I’m embarrased so you’ll think I’m a good person, and tell me not to worry. I’m probably confessing that to you, because … etc.’
Alas, I inherited that kind of thinking; and still slip into it easily. The title of this post came to mind as I was musing on childhood and old age. It refers to King David’s lament in Psalm 13:
“13 How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
2 How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
Having sorrow in my heart daily?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and hear me, O Lord my God;
Enlighten my eyes,
Lest I sleep the sleep of death;
4 Lest my enemy say,
“I have prevailed against him”;
Lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved.
5 But I have trusted in Your mercy;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
Am I accepting the Divine mercy and salvation that David’s Psalm expresses so beautifully? The hyperconscientious habit asks that question, and worries about the answer. Don’t I know? No, not with confidence. That’s because, unlike the trust of many believers I know – perhaps all – my faith teaches that our spiritual future in the afterlife may not be good. Happiness isn’t guaranteed, because each of us must choose freely (That’s not an oxymoron), who and what to love and labor for. Without freedom of spiritual choice, our alleged choice would be a meaningless sham. And without allowing us that genuine choice, God would be arbitrary and unloving. To give a parallel, some parents try to bully an adolescent child (who understands what she or he wants) into doing what they want, or else!. (A young child is different, of course.) That’s selfish, not loving. Despite saying ‘I’m only doing it for your own good, Dear’, it’s wong, immoral. And in fact even the adolescent is doing what she wants, by avoiding the dominating parent’s punishment.
What does “Freedom” mean? It’s a theme I often return to in posts, conversations and teaching. When I put that question to any of my students in Ethics, Philosophy or Religion classes, their first answer was almost always, ‘Do what you want!’ That’s true, as discussed above. But the results of so doing may be either happy or miserable, depending on what you want. Everyone knows this. ‘Careful what you ask for; you might get it.’
Regardless of any next life, choosing wrongly can have results in this world that are inherently self-contradictory. A substance addict’s example is helpful. The addict is doing what he wants, but he’s a slave to that abused substance, and can’t get free without great suffering and effort or help. I personally doubt that addiction is physical, although it clearly results in observable physical effects. If it’s mental, on the other hand, maybe it’s just a very bad habit , like too much screen watching, that needs changing. This was the controversial view of psychiatrist Thomas Szasz who wrote The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961. BTW I’m not against technology; only against it’s bad use, and the power it gives to tech giants who control it. Szasz’s and my skeptical view of addiction is still supported, with caveats, by thoughtful people. Alvernia University reports, “The National Institute on Drug Abuse looks more thoroughly into the way the brain functions in people who are addicted to something. The organization stated that ‘surges of dopamine in the reward circuit cause the reinforcement of pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs, leading people to repeat the behavior again and again.’ By indulging in the substance or behavior, over time the dopamine that triggers in the brain lessens and lessens. This ultimately reduces the ‘high’ that people get from their addiction, which motivates them to seek out the substance or behavior more and more.” I would only add that changes of substances in the brain (e.g. Dopamine) don’t prove brain chemistry caused the dependency. But then I’m prejudiced in favor of the ‘inner’ self, where true freedom of choice dwells.
We’ve all heard the riddle of the Sphinx – ‘What goes on 4 in the morning, on 2 at noon, and on 3 in the evening?’ I’m wondering what it might be like to go on 4 again, in the ‘late evening‘. If we make wrong choices we could end up crawling again, like Nebuchadnezzar, described in Daniel 14:33: ‘That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.‘ But he learned his lesson and repented. For those who don’t?
In sum, my view of freedom opposes that of Epicurus, and the Born-Again- salvation-guaranteed believers, and the utterly disgusting and blasphemous Calvinists, who claim that an arbitrary (not a loving) God has already chosen the few ‘elect’ and damned the rest forever to hell! May God help him out of where I assume (but don’t know) he is now.