I’ve just learned that my parents have decided to become vegetarians. They are 82. My uncle read a book, tried the recommended diet, lowered his blood pressure, lost weight–convinced my parents of the benefits (reduces the risk of cancer, extends life), so they’re trying it. Most of me thinks–super cool, new adventures, the less factory farmed meat consumed the better, but something about it made me feel a little sad around the edges. My Dad was happy about the weight he’s already lost. He has worried about his weight all his life (though I don’t think the word “overweight” could ever be reasonably, rightly applied to him). I feel like 82 should elicit some sense of freedom from this lifelong worry. He’s a healthy, vital, old man. I want him to enjoy himself–eat, drink, and be merry.
I think yoga and green tea and long walks and vegetables are wonderful. I hope to live fully as long as I am alive, but I’m disturbed by the number of articles I’ve read lately that suggest that extending life (some say “indefinitely”) is something increasingly within science and technology’s reach. New studies with tons of funding are approaching aging, not so much as an intransient fact, but as a curable disease. A curable disease. Somehow I don’t think this is going to end up being very helpful. It certainly won’t help us go gently into that good night and I doubt it will make the raging against the dying of the light very merry. There will be too much work to be done, pharmaceuticals to be sought, creams to be bought, diets to be undertaken, pleasures to be denied. It will require time and effort and money. I actually like that death is an intransient fact–there is mercy in it.
If it’s truly a possibility that death might be defeated by for-profit, biotech, multinational corporations, then I will have to revise my theology.
But I like the stories around which my faith and hope have formed. God reaching into the dirt shaping the humans out of the mud to which they will return–breathing life into our lungs, making us fully human and calling this mortal assembly of bones and blood good.
I like the stories where I learned that seeking to be like gods (as we imagine gods to be: almighty, immortal, invulnerable) leads not to life-giving beauty, but some sort of life-sucking, power-hungry hubris.
This seems very true to me and like something worth learning.
I find a lot of hope in the story of the God who comes into the world like all of us–with skin capable of being pierced, bones capable of being broken, fragile, mortal—enters the world as a human being, gives up power, dies, to show us there is nothing to fear. It’s okay to be human.
This seems like good news. The kind of thing that might help us relax, quit worshipping power, eat and drink and be merry, have a little compassion for the rest of humanity, strive less, give more, for tomorrow we die.
“In medieval Europe, there were experiments to transfuse the blood of young boys into old men: ‘Three boys died draining themselves for Pope Innocent VIII’…’scraps and powders of shredded or ground mummified corpses’ were prescribed as youth-giving medicine as recently as the Second World War,” In the 1920’s a Russian doctor “transplanted ape testicles into the scrotums of rich men” writes Bee Wilson in Harper’s. Our quest for longer life has always seemed a little desperate–something that probably doesn’t turn out to be that good for us.
My parents have been aging wonderfully gracefully. I don’t think their new diet is an indication that this is changing. But how hard it must be to age wisely, comfortably, calmly in a culture that is virulently anti-aging. If any of us hope to enjoy our lives as the years pass, rather than fear our deaths, gravity, our own skin, we might want to resist the dominant narrative.
Whatever death defying biotechnology Elixir, Sirtris or Calico (a new Google company) come up with, you can be certain that it will most benefit the 1%. Literary dystopia is full of images of the wealthy being kept alive by harvesting organs from the poor or slave-like clones created for that purpose. Amore Pacific sells 1.7 ounces of anti-aging cream for $450. Dior Capture Totale One Essential Skin Boosting Super Serum is $95 an ounce. A face-lift costs between 5 and 10 thousand dollars.
We will obviously experience loss, suffering, and weakness as we age, but I think the best stories allow us to see this movement as a road to freedom, grace, enlightenment–even salvation, rather than something to be avoided. Elders have been respected in nearly every place and time but our own. In the ancient Vedic writing of the Indian subcontinent, the stages of life are outlined. Each stage has a practical and spiritual role. In one of the final stages–once your last child left home, you were free to leave your responsibilities and become a vanaprastha, a forest-dweller. The forest dweller meditates a lot, reflecting on their lives and the world. They didn’t have to move fast. They were surrounded by beauty. This vs the Elim home.
21st century capitalism won’t allow us to embrace aging. Anti-aging is a multi billion-dollar industry. It would be a huge loss of revenue for the weight loss industry, pharmaceutical companies, plastic surgeons, the cosmetic business. If the market determines everything, this is bound to persist. But, we could quit buying into it. I know that doesn’t seem likely, or likely to change anything, but, still, I think it makes sense to resist. The resistance would be blasphemous to the gods of capital. It might embrace a few extra pounds, instead of despising them. It would involve repeatedly assuring each other and ourselves–you are okay how you are–imperfect, human, aging, mortal. More even: beloved, beautiful.
Instead of continually throwing money and resources, the best science and medicine at trying to be different than what we are, we might have some left over to share with people whose problems are more pressing than self esteem. I think we should quit being scared of the dominant culture’s critique. We’re afraid of being human. This is something that permeates our lives–I think grace would be something better to embrace.
photo from Harpers, November 2013: The Young Newlyweds and Death, by Chretian de Mechel, 1860.