Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Last Hurrah


Jean Stimmell ©2008

I wrote last week about why our national economy can’t endlessly grow – neither can individuals. That has viscerally hit home for me after soldiering through four cancers.

My unease intensified after reading an old article in Atlantic Magazine by an oncologist and bioethicist entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” He argued, “that society and families – and you – will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and  promptly.”⁠1  

He accuses Americans of seeking immortality  through our obsession with eternal growth: “exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death.” Unfortunately, this campaign has failed: Over the last 50 years, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.” 

Before the advent of modern medicine, people, as a rule, passed quickly, thus avoiding long, painful deaths. He quotes from a turn-of-the-century medical textbook: “Pneumonia may well be called the friend of the aged. Taken off by it in an acute, short, not often painful illness, the old man escapes those ‘cold gradations of decay’ so distressing to himself and to his friends.”

 I've already experienced some of these 'cold gradations of decay.' Hearing aids and an artificial knee are poor substitutes for the real thing. And my cancers, now thankfully in remission, have taken a lasting toll through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful to be still kicking and in relatively good shape – in no small part because of superior care from Concord Hospital. I still hike, garden, and cut my firewood, albeit at a slower pace. Nevertheless, I will be reluctant to submit to more heavy-duty medical treatment in the future because of the additional toll it will take on my compromised body, coupled with the hardship of enduring another lengthy and painful recovery process.

Nevertheless, I see a bright side: my journey has helped me make peace with my mortality. In 1988, Barbara Ehrenreich, now sadly deceased, wrote a searing book on this subject: "Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer."

“We may buy expensive anti-aging products or cosmetic surgery, get preventive screenings and eat more kale, or throw ourselves into meditation and spirituality. But all these things offer only the illusion of control. How to live well, even joyously, while accepting our mortality -- that is the vitally important philosophical challenge of this book.⁠2

 I wholeheartedly agree. Living out our lives as if death didn't exist is a tragedy. That's because, in the words of Sean Daney, the acclaimed movie critic, it is death that bestows our lives with "gravity and importance." He said that the filmmaker's role – and it is true for all of us – is to interpret "The weight of life through the certainty of  death.”⁠3

Unfortunately, as Ehrenreich points out about contemporary society, because we are in denial about death, we have made no preparation for leaving it: “We treat aging as an outrage or, worse, as a sin. In our addiction to betterment, we’ve replaced “health” — an absence of sickness — with the amorphous “wellness” and a flurry of overtesting, fad diets and pointless “alternative” treatments.”⁠4

Ehrenreich. makes the point that rather than investing the majority of our medical resources on the elderly, as our nation does now, we should invest instead in the health of our children and younger folks, who are in their productive years. 

It goes without saying: we would all like to live longer and healthier lives; “the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other, often more consequential things to do.”⁠5 She would rather take a walk in nature than take a trip to the hospital for a screening test.

I feel the same.

 I've lived a long life of striving: striving to get good grades in school, master a meaningful occupation, raise my family, and, hopefully, make a slight, positive difference in the world. At 77, I have no desire to continue striving to live as long as possible. Instead, I would rather kick back and feel the sun on my face, listen to the birds sing, and enjoy my friends while having a beer.

I’ve been made aware, however, if I do make it to one hundred, certain exceptions open up, as told in this anecdote by Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research.

Barzilai once visited a centenarian; she was smoking a cigarette when she opened the door. "I said, 'Helen, nobody told you to stop smoking?'" 

 "And she said, 'You know, the four doctors who told me to stop smoking? They all died."⁠6

So it goes…



1 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/⁠1

2 https://www.amazon.com/Natural-Causes-Epidemic-Certainty-Ourselves/dp/1455535915

3 https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/serge-daney-cinema-house-world/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%201.26.2023&utm_term=daily

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/10/books/review-natural-causes-barbara-ehrenreich.html

5 Ehrenreich, Barbara. Natural Causes . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.  Location 126

6 https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/01/25/longevity-centenarians-healthy-living/?utm_campaign=wp_news_alert_revere_trending_now&utm_medium=email&utm_source=alert&location=alert

Monday, January 16, 2023

Do the Dark Ages Beckon?

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0

Mass delusions were unheard of for those old enough to be around in 1978. We were flabbergasted when we heard Jim Jones had induced his fellow cult members to join him in a suicide pack by drinking cyanide-laced cool-aid. It claimed the lives of 909 commune members, 304 of them children.

But, over the years, mass delusions have proliferated like termites until they are rotting the foundations of our modern world, painstakingly built on reason and science. There is no way to sugarcoat this: We are in real danger of allowing superstition and urban myths to drag us back to the Dark Ages.

Just look at QAnon conspiracy theory’s central belief that “government, media, and financial worlds are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a sex-trafficking operation.”⁠1 This bizarre myth is no longer confined to the nutty fringe: According to several reputable surveys, one-in-five Americans are now QAnon believers.

As I have written previously,⁠2 the notion that our nation could regress is anathema to the American Dream, which holds that continuing progress is our birthright.

But what if this notion of perpetual advancement is only a myth? That’s what the 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico theorized. He said we fool ourselves by thinking our sense of reality is based on higher principles when, in fact, cultures are steered by the myths and metaphors of everyday people. Because of this limitation, societies can’t help but ebb and flow, facing inevitable periods of decline, which he summarized in this axiom:

“Men first felt necessity then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.”⁠3

Carl Sagan, at first blush, would appear to be the complete opposite of Vico; he, of course, is fondly remembered today as America’s most public and revered scientist, a true believer in progress and rationality. Yet, like Vico, Sagan predicted bad times ahead due to the irrational prejudices of the average citizen.

In 1996, Sagan wrote a book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” as pessimistic as anything Vico wrote: 

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few; when the people have lost the ability to… question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes… unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.⁠4

Sagan wrote this despite his belief in progress and “timeless natural law, which he believed were discoverable with the tools of science. But the big danger that haunted him was that “the candle in the dark” of science would be snuffed out by “the dumbing down of America.”⁠5

Sagan died in 1996, shortly after writing this book, but not before strenuously arguing for a major overhaul of our educational system. He believed the best defense against superstition and prejudice was to teach children more science and critical thinking skills in school, starting at an early age.

Of course, that would be impossible in NH today because our legislature and our two-faced governor would reject the teaching of critical thinking just as it did with critical race theory.

Then again, perhaps Vico, not Sagan, was right about progress being a myth. Maybe societies rise and fall in cycles like the seasons take turns in the natural world. 

One might argue that nature moves forward in the sense that rivers always progress toward the sea. But that would not be the complete picture: At some point, the water evaporates back into the atmosphere and starts the cycle over again. It’s the same with us humans: We are merely another cycle destined to be born, procreate, grow old, and die.

Of course, our human musings are not the final word: An advanced civilization from outer space – or God, for that matter – would likely consider even our most advanced theory to be just another primitive myth.



1 https://www.thedailybeast.com/23-percent-of-republicans-agree-satan-worshipping-pedophiles-run-government-poll-says

2 https://www.concordmonitor.com/A-return-to-the-Middle-Ages-35214142

3 https://www.openculture.com/2017/01/carl-sagan-predicts-the-decline-of-america.html

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid