Living to die
January 22, 2023 Comments Off on Living to die
Most people live in order to get more life. Once they realize that death is not only inevitable but personal, they double down, then triple down on prolonging life.
As you age you realize that it takes very little to snuff out your life. A fall, a car collision, death becomes available at every turn. By the time you’re as old as I am, you have seen people die in just about every way, from disease, sudden conditions, random accidents, suicide. But the vast majority of deaths you will ever encounter are self-inflicted over long periods of time, what I call wasting death.
Wasting death assaults even the healthiest. It results from the moment you, as an old person, begin ratcheting down movement and risk. Whether choosing the seat of your RV, your car, a jet, a cruise ship, or your La-Z-Boy, the wasting death, once begun, almost never reverts to the previous state of sudden death.
Sudden death, where you place yourself in harm’s way because a certain amount of risk is inherent in the movement and activity required to sustain a meaningful, enjoyable existence, is the province of the young for the most part, and it’s this proximity to sudden death, while being mostly unaware of it, that allows youth to do what old age can only remember. In fact, that may be the definition of youth. The onset of old age begins with awareness.
People don’t choose wasting death consciously. They don’t wake up one day and abjure all risk. Rather, they begin to cut back. “No more road riding. Cars are so dangerous, I’m sticking to gravel.”
“No more gravel. You can get really hurt falling off the bike at my age. I’m sticking to walking.”
“No more fast walking. You can trip and break your hip. I’m sticking to the treadmill.”
These and a hundred other micro-decisions keep restricting activity until you become the prototypical old person: stuck indoors, or stuck in an ever-decreasing circle of golf, walks around the block, indoor exercise, coffee rides, and ultimately nothing at all. Senility, and what’s worse, bone-deep ennui are all that’s left.
But you have a choice. You can choose sudden death. Not the self-inflicted kind where you wrap a belt around your neck and step off the chair, but the kind that accompanies a life in which you acknowledge that meaning and enjoyment require you to keep taking risks. Whether it’s the risk of a rocky trail run where a bad fall will badly fuck you up, whether it’s the hard labor of chopping wood where a bad swing will lop off the end of your foot, or whether it’s continuing to go as fast as you can on your bike outdoors, the continued proximity to bad outcomes is the only thing that will make life worthwhile.
Yet people generally prefer to hang on and get faux satisfaction from social media, lame activities, alcohols/drugs, TV, movies, eating, and shopping. Even reading is a cop-out: words on a page will never stretch your muscles, trigger flight-or-fight, push you into the discomfort that comes from proximity to risk.
And the irony is that the corollary of “The more you do, the more you can do,” escapes everyone, or at least they ignore it. The corollary? “The less you do, the less you can do.”
In business it’s axiomatic that you are either growing or shrinking; stasis is not an option. But you’ll look far and wide before you’ll encounter anyone who applies that to their own aging regime. When it’s your life, the physics are reversed, at least delusionally so, because the approach becomes “The more you do, the sooner you’ll die,” and “The less you do, the longer you’ll live.”
Neither is true. The more you do, the more you will live, however many days greater or fewer before you die. And the less you do, the more meaningless and worthless your life becomes, the emptier and more immune you become to the intensity of existence. A fulfilling old age is a vigorous one lived outdoors. A miserable old age is a couch.
Of course this is exactly the opposite of what marketing tells us. Marketing tells us that old age should be beautiful sunsets on a beach, arm-in-arm strolls through the park, romantic dinners with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. It makes sense because marketing only works when you’re going slow or seated, and slightly drunk. Pitching an old age that emphasizes a slow fade ensures you’ll pick up the carefully crafted messages designed to lighten your wallet as you mumble your way into oblivion.
It all comes back to death. Until you’re ready to die you will never live. People have known this for eons. It’s why the most horrible fate for a Plains Indian was farming. It’s why the most horrible fate for a farmer was working in a factory. And it’s why the office worker, put out to pasture with no point or purpose to live beyond another gray sky in a Groundhog Day existence, feels numb and bored and fearful of death. Grad school doesn’t teach you how to die, not even Harvard Law.
For that matter, neither does Harvard undergrad. A high school classmate who had gotten into cycling in college once told me, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, that he had a heart condition and further hard exercise would kill him. He had the venerable air of a retired general who had fought many campaigns, and proudly pointed to his disability and the fact that he “might” die as his honorable discharge from risk, adventure, and life.
Of course he’s still alive, has a family, and has succeeded in the grueling academic and scientific fields of pediatric cancer. But he’s been dead since age twenty-five, when he decided to structure his future years solely around getting more years. And yes, he was an undergrad at Harvard. And as far as I know, cancer remains uncured.
From a philosophical standpoint you could argue, and most would, that it’s better to live another thirty-five years by minimizing risk than to die at twenty-five of a heart condition. People make this argument because they imagine what a tragedy it would be if THEY had died at twenty-five. What they can’t imagine is the tragedy of living a normal lifespan afraid to use the body they’re born in. They can’t imagine the tragedy of the walking dead, where life is lived simply to have more of it, like an endless buffet at which you lost all appetite the second time through but at which you must endlessly keep grazing because the memory of hunger urges you to eat, never mind that actual hunger was sated long ago.
This is the crux of it. My friend’s death, your death, my death, are not tragedies. They are inevitabilities. You can prolong it with more sofa time but you can’t make it more enjoyable, and while injury from getting hit by a car while cycling is possible, injury and disease from sitting is a certainty.
Barriers to moving abound as you age, yet the biggest barrier is physics. In order to slow the decline and stimulate your shortening telomeres, it takes far greater effort to achieve less and less effect. It doesn’t get easier, you just get deader slower. And as the effort and intensity and duration required to maintain optimal functioning increase, so does the risk of injury, leading to greater fear and less activity, not more. The one thing you have to do more of is the one thing you do less.
I experienced this when I quit racing bikes. I didn’t like the doping free-for-all, but more than that I feared getting hurt. As time goes by I calculate risk with much greater care than I used to, even though I know that the risk is where the quality of life resides.
The insurmountable difficulty of dying well is demonstrated by a vigorous death’s most eloquent exponent, Dylan Thomas. The author of “Do not go gentle into that good night” did exactly that, pathetically expiring at age thirty-nine from the wholly pedestrian, sedentary, and unrebellious act of drinking too much. Far from raging against the dying of the light, he submissively expired in a pool of his own vomit, later to be joined by such artist/poets as Jimi and Janis, who similarly confused the befuddlement of too much alcohol with pushing the envelope of human experience. Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel is limit-pushing. Standing under a falling piano is not.
It’s Sunday morning. The day is young and you are not. Act accordingly.