Saturday, June 13, 2009

On Lifespans

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Brevity, not longevity. It's the blogger's ideal.

This is Pagan Values Month, and as usual I'm not following either the script suggested by fellow Pagans or the task I set myself -- finding bargain gods and goddesses for the savvy deity shopper.

Instead, today I again tackle a thorny issue of medical ethics. I mentioned it in a post the other day.

At the turn of the previous century, the average lifespan was somewhere in the mid-4os. Today the average lifespan of a white American is almost 80. May you live long and prosper, no matter your race or creed!

Now let's look at the burgeoning mass of information on the genome and the prospects it holds out for longevity. It is not possible, it is inevitable that medical research will find a way to prolong human life indefinitely. Disconnect a few genes associated with cell degeneration, and you could have people who live a few hundred years at the peak of health and vigor. Perhaps the only thing that will kill these people is a catastrophic accident, like falling off a cliff.

The ethical issue attached to this is staggering. Who gets to live to be 400? Rich white people? Extraordinarily intelligent or good-looking people? Favorite movie stars? Because the medical technology needed to produce longevity will be expensive, at least at first. And what about the population of the planet? Who has to die to make way for the superannuated?

To me, this inevitable and distressing medical advance should be an issue around which all religions draw rank. Granted, there are a few cultures that have no concept of the afterlife. But there are far fewer that have no concept of higher powers than mere feeble humans. What happens to religion, though, if certain people start living for centuries, rather than decades? Is this not an issue that transcends any one praise and worship team?

Would Pagans value a lifespan of 800 years? Can't speak universally, but it doesn't sound good to this casual Druid. I doubt if it would sound good to the pope either, even if he was the first to be offered the elixir of enhanced longevity.

While various religions debate each other with varying degrees of vitriol, I think it's important to suggest that we share at least one belief in common: people ought to die in a timely manner. I'm not even talking about euthanasia here. I'm talking about living an average lifespan of no more than a century and then taking a chance with the higher power of choice.

Mark Twain once said, "We cry at funerals and celebrate at births because it isn't us." That's as cynical as it gets, so let's give Walt Whitman a crack at it:

All goes onward and outward and nothing collapses
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

Can anyone tell me a religion that would quarrel with that? Sometimes it's good to celebrate some common ground.


Buzzardbilly said...

Excellent post and topic! I love Twain and Whitman, so I can go with either quote as a good one. As for longevity, from everything I've seen (and Evil Granny lived to be 96, so I've seen some old old old upclose and uncomfortable...due to her inherent evilness—she was a sociopath, no shit), medical science currently has nothing to offer the aging but a prolonging of whatever they suffer from and incredible bills at the pharmacy. I plan on wearing my shit out before it gets to that. My sister and I even have an "I'll pull the plug for you if it comes to that" pact because neither of us sees the point in prolonging suffering and shackling the living to death's bedside for months or years on end. Life is meant to be enjoyed, endured, and injected with as much good times as you can. It is not meant to be clung to as a living shell of your former self all in the name of "not missing a thing." From what I've seen, the old or ill folks in my family can't get out and enjoy life, so what's the fucking point? Oh, if we could all be like Yellowdog Granny and maintain our fiestiness into latter years, I'd be all for it.

THE Michael said...

Hell, even now, medical technology can keep your demented carcass warehoused in the fetal position while poorly-paid nursing home aids clean your bottom and keep your feeding tube topped off. You won't know who or where you are, but that doesn't matter, because we have to keep your body alive at all costs, doncha know, even IF you would have died a much more dignified death if only we'd let you.

Life, or a sorry semblance of same, is precious, doncha know............


holy shit...the dick cheney's and the ann couters' ??????? oh noo..

Maeve said...

I don't know. Listening to the crow near my house mourning the death of one of its nest-mates, makes me consider how one would cope with outliving all those you know and love. I don't think I'd want that.

I think most of us are selfish enough that if we had the gene therapy, we'd want all our loved ones to have it too. And there's no way the Earth can support billions upon billions of humans for eons of time.

Though, I wonder what kinds of advances we could make as a species. Just think of the learning curve and wisdom and insights we come to as we progress through the decades. What would we become aware of if we lived 150, 300 years? The potential for spiritual evolution is so huge.

I think it would be worth the negative risks, in order for our species to have a chance at a better way of living. Because the way we live now is awful. We're all here debating this issue, while people in poor countries are living in shanty towns by open sewage and scrabbling in dumps for food scraps. We most of us have shelter and food and clothing. The idealistic part of me has never figured out how to cope well with the inequities of our world.

Of course, it wouldn't be worth it at all if one's quality of life and physical /mental health weren't good. If it cut out things like cancers and dementia and brittle bones... let muscles and things regenerate like they do when we're young... hm.

I am glad the decision isn't mine! I would dither forever trying to decide.

harmonyfb said...

My father died two days ago; I've been searching for some religious comfort in vain - I'm the lone Pagan in a sea of Baptists. Thank you for the Whitman quote. It felt like the hand of the Goddess on my heart.