I’ve been catching up with a series on death and dying presented by Miriam Margolyes (that’s Mar-go-lees, not something that rhymes with gargoyles). She’s a very entertaining presenter, seemingly unconcerned with image and reacting genuinely and spontaneously as she tours care homes and other facilities to discover different attitudes to death. She visits a brilliant place where song and laughter are used to facilitate good mental health and hops across the pond to encounter a group of whacky folk who believe it’s possible to live forever if you just find the right formula. I’m highly sceptical about this: all things are subject to age and decay (though OH annoyingly had to point out some exceptions to this; creatures with long telemeres apparently) but there are other objections. First, this ‘therapy’ is available only to the rich, and in conversation some practitioners expressed views dangerously close to eugenics, suggesting that the poor and criminal classes would die out leaving only the worthy surviving. Right after this Margolyes visits a poor area where the homeless hang out and most people die young; the contrast could not be greater. Frankly I found the picture of the youthful elderly utterly repellent; most of them looked more grotesque than Mick Jagger and altogether they were such an unnatural bunch that I’d rather die tomorrow than resemble them. But there are other, deeper objections to this philosophy.
First, what matters is not the amount of time you have but what you do with it. We all know the problem of procrastination when a deadline is far away; but give most of us an imminent cut-off date and we’ll crack on. It’s salutary in many ways to act as if death is just around the corner (though not like this). History is full of examples of people who died young but achieved lots: Mozart only lived 35 years but he composed so many works that they are referred to by a Kochel number (after the guy who classified them.) In fact he wrote 68 symphonies, 27 concertos for piano alone and so many other compositions that I can’t begin to list them; more than six hundred in all and most composed over a 24-year period. Keats also died young but managed a significant body of work; Hendrix didn’t see 30 but changed the face of guitar music; and though it’s tempting to wonder what they might have achieved had they lived, maybe they wouldn’t have achieved much more. I’d rather have a short, fulfilled life than sit twenty years in a reclining chair (though I think that ship may already have sailed.*)
I think the acceptance of death is a necessary check to the ego; the knowledge that there will come a point where ‘I’ am no more is a salutary one. In any case the way to prolong life is not to postpone death, it is to live every moment. In every moment there is the possibility of interacting with eternity, and when we do that we are in every real sense outside time.
*the short life ship, not the twenty years in a chair ship