It’s a recurring theme in current events. Every few weeks, as I scour the headlines, I see yet another story about someone who is sure he has cracked the code. He has hacked the human body in such a way that he will live an unusually long life. He has come up with just the right diet, just the exercise regime, just the right concoction, just the right invention. He will reverse, or at least hold off, the effects of aging and live to be 120 or 150 or 180.
Perhaps he will. But what I always wonder is, Why would he want to? What would be the cost of living so long and why would anyone wish to pay it? I don’t mean the financial cost—you can’t take your money with you to the grave, so investing it in a longer life makes good sense. I mean the social cost, the emotional cost, the cost in grief and pain.
On a few occasions I’ve read interviews with centenarians—those who have lived more than 100 years. They are inevitably asked about the keys to their longevity, and their answers are as unique as the individuals themselves—some say love, some say luck, some say genetics, some say alcohol. You’d look in vain for that one key, that one imitable factor, that gave them twenty, thirty, or forty more years than so many of their peers.
But the great trial for such people is that they don’t just live, they out-live. The woman who celebrates her 110th birthday has invariably outlived her parents, her siblings, her husband, and the great majority of her friends. She has stood at all of their gravesides and bid them a sorrowful farewell. She has also usually outlived her children and many of her grandchildren—even those who, on their own account, have lived out their threescore and ten. Almost everyone she has ever loved, and was ever meant to love, has already come and gone. We all know we will be forgotten by the second or third generation of our descendants, but we don’t much care because we know that by that time we’ll be long gone. But what if that’s not the case? What if we are still around and they aren’t?
Those people who want to live unusually long lives are obsessed with not only living long, but also living healthy. That’s understandable—they don’t want to live 150 years if they are bedridden for the last 40 of them. And perhaps there is a way they can hack their bodies to slow the inevitable decay of muscle and the weakening of bones, to hold off the growth of cancers and the coming of Alzheimers. They may not experience the physical weakening and loss that the rest of us do, but there is little they can do to shield themselves from the compounding loss of loved ones. They can reduce the wear and tear on their bodies, but not the wear and tear on their minds, souls, and emotions as they watch the decay and death of every person they’ve ever loved.
As a form of self-protection they might then choose not to love at all. That could be their defense. But is a life without love a life worth living? As Tennyson so eloquently reminds us,
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
I understand the desire for a long life, and especially for those who have no firm hope for life beyond. The grave yawns dark and cold and terrifying for those who approach it with uncertainty. But for those who approach it with confidence, we understand that, in its unique way, death is a release. It is a release from the sorrow and suffering that might otherwise overwhelm us. While we lament that there must be a grave, we also anticipate that it marks the end of all sorrow and the beginning of true, lasting, uninterrupted joy.