"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 15, 2012


I have always felt that Americans actually believe that life can be eternal or at least extended indefinitely if you follow the rules – reduce fat, salt, and alcohol; quit smoking; and wear a seat-belt.  In all the other thousand-and-one threats to life, the rule of thumb should be to avoid risk at any cost.  In sum, the result of a carefully crafted life can be longevity itself.  Few people are realistic about this longevity.  Despite statistics which state that the average American born today will live 78.2 years, most people think they can beat that by a mile.  Ninety is the new seventy, and a hundred and beyond is not a stretch.

This philosophy is very American, perhaps as American as any construct can be, for it combines many of our characteristic attributes.  We are doers and problem-solvers, and there is nothing that cannot be resolved if we simply put our minds to it and use the disciplined logic and practical attentiveness inherited from our Puritan forbearers. We are risk-takers, but we are even more risk-averse.  Risk-free playgrounds, fatality-averse military strategies, and laws and policies which attempt to regulate risk-free behavior at swimming pools, on the highways are commonplace. We are the most religious country on earth (perhaps India rivals our devotion), but we seem to have at least as much faith in science as in God.  God may be waiting with our just deserts, but science is the way to extend our life, give it more quality, and provide us the chance to live longer before we meet our Maker.

In a piece in the New York Review of Books (10.16.12) Alan Ryan reviews two of Jill Lepore’s books on America and in particular how popular culture influences our views of life and death:

Jill Lepore has a thesis, less about life and death than about how we think of them. Once, human life was seen in a circular fashion: dust to dust. The wheel of fate turned, and we entered the world as helpless infants; the fortunate survived to a healthy maturity, then came old age, a second childhood, helplessness, and death. Now, she says, we have a linear view of life, and although lines come to an end as circles do not, we do our best to stretch out the line as far as science allows.

This linear view is exactly right.  Few of us want to accept mortality as soon as we are aware of it – that is accepting the natural and inevitable cycle of dust-to-dust and the humility that acceptance of it engenders – and most of us, when and if we emerge from the only real risk-taking period of our lives, adolescence, retreat into a life-forever mode. Perhaps most importantly our last handful of dust on earth is not really the end of our existence – it is only the beginning of an after-life.  Hindus have a more complex or nuanced view of this cycle.  As our ashes cool on the funeral pyres by the Ganges, we are already reborn into another life on earth and will continue this extended cycle unless and until we have understood the path to breaking the cycle and becoming a universal spiritual being.

Francois Villon in a well-known poem says that we will all end up in un tas pêle-mêle – thrown together in an ignominious and undistinguished pile; that no matter how ceremonious our lives may have been, at the beginning and at the end we are uniquely and incontrovertibly the same.  In the late Middle Ages when Villon wrote, this sense of finality was the very reason for faith and religious purpose.  Shakespeare’s kings often thought about the transient nature of kingship and life itself.  Existentialists pondered the meaningless of life and the trap of the endless cycle of being and non-being.   In principle, this dust-to-dust philosophy fostered a respect for others who would be thrown with us in the same pile.  It was a philosophy which governed our spiritual and secular life.

Now, says Lepore, our view of life’s trajectory is linear. Although we may understand in principle that we are all mortal, the goal of life is not to accept the fact and derive from it a religious solace or secular equality, but to fight to extend it.  Through our secular savior, science, the goal of life eternal may in fact be possible.  Why should we not be able to change our DNA such that death itself, like some unwanted gene, can be eliminated?

Linear expectations give us a very different perspective on living.  There should be no time for Villon’s or Richard II’s unproductive reflections on life or the meaning of celebrity; for we should be filling every second with doing, achieving, accomplishing.  A life worth living is a life that has been fully lived, period.

One aspect of Lepore’s belief that we have moved from a circular to a linear world is that she shares the British philosopher John Gray’s view that our obsession with the preservation of life at all costs is distinctively modern. The Darwinian revolution established that human beings are animals much like other animals, “gene machines” in Richard Dawkins’s phrase, and the urge to “defeat death” and turn ourselves into perpetual motion machines became overwhelming. There is plainly something to this view, if only because we are less helpless in the face of disease than our forebears were.

Lepore is fascinated with Americans’ desire to cheat or beat death, and the wacky ways we explore to do so:

In 2009 Lepore  went to interview Robert Ettinger, the enthusiast for cryonic immortality.  Ettinger in the Michigan warehouse where the deep-frozen bodies of his mother, his two wives, and ninety-two other “patients” waited in sure hope of eternal life stored head downward in vats of liquid nitrogen.

Faced with the question whether he really wants to be revived in the company of the elderly and infirm folk he has deep-frozen—along with several dozen pets—he reverts to the fantasies of traditional religion. It won’t be these bodies that will experience the resurrection but bodies transformed by the science of the future into something “young and strong and tireless.”

We all hedge our bets.  We may believe in the possibility of an earthly immortality, but pray to God that he take us if and when we die.  Another great American trait – negotiation.

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