Jonathan Swift, in the Seventeenth Century, got it wrong when he described people who got their lives extended as doddering wrecks. William Hazlitt, writing at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, also got it wrong when he said most people are ready to die, look all played out, by the time they die. Modern medicine means that, to the contrary, you can live a comfortable life until you die, barring certain debilitating illnesses like cancer and ALS. Modern people want to go on as long as they can, doing the things they like to do, like reading or gardening, or taking walks and conversing with grandchildren, even though at any moment that comfortable if restricted way of life can be turned into a terminal illness by a fall, a cough that turns to pneumonia, the diagnosis of a deadly disease, and even then people want to continue as long as they can, so long as they have drugs to numb the pain and that do not render them incapable of appreciating their environment. People don’t want to give up even if they know that the burden of medical care and medical expenses takes place during the last two years of life. Their insurance companies and the government should spare no expense. After all, what do people have to look forward to once they are dead? It is an afterlife that has no substance and is therefore so far from what the present life is that it is the same thing as being dead is for a non-believer. If there is no walking on clouds or talking with angels, no sensation, then there is nothing at all. And those who cling to some substantive notion of an afterlife are merely being superstitious, having faith in eternal life because they have no reason to think there is any such thing.
I have joined the corps of people who are at age where health reverses are common rather than rare. My friends have withstood prostate surgery, multiple bypass surgery, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and some have died of cancer. And yet what is true of all the survivors is that they have not given up on living, have not had to combat despair because the amount of time left to them is limited, but think rather in terms of the practical things they can do to extend their comfortable lives. They go to their checkups regularly, increasing those to include podiatrists and dermatologists along with the cardiologists and neurologists they also consult. They take their medicines. They are not passive in confronting the inevitable; it is just that they are not in a war to survive. That talk is all metaphorical. The person who dies of cancer has not lost his battle; he has succumbed because nature does what it does. Nature does not get what it wants because it doesn’t want anything. Nature has no intention and so cannot be seen as an antagonist. Things just happen.
The remarkable thing is, I can report, how cheerful people can be while the sword of death hangs over them. Yes, they have their savings and pensions to live off; they have their past career successes to contemplate; they have the love of their spouses, friends and children and grandchildren to warm them. They can appreciate a sunny spring day or a chilly autumn afternoon, or the pretty, well dressed young woman who walks by. But this does not make sense to much of the literary imagination because a nemesis, such as is death, is supposed to engender fear and loathing. King Lear rails against his diminished condition of power and cognition even as he rages against the storm and his relatives, reconciled to nature only by the death of his daughter, which is heartbreaking and yet self condemning because why would it take that to pay him back for his grievances against the world and himself? Shakespeare may present Lear in this way because Shakespeare is always likely to show his tragic heroes in extreme and contrarian emotions. But, on the other hand, it may be that this view of old age is as old as the Christian tradition, which preaches that the wages of sin are death, and so suffering in old age is befitting as it harkens forward to the suffering that awaits most of us in Hell and Purgatory, given that we who all suffer from original sin deserve no better. What I am always amazed by in Dante is that humans who have already suffered for many years the unrelenting tortures of Hell retain their most human attributes. They can conduct civil conversations during which they contemplate their lives on Earth. It makes me think that Dante did not really understand the suffering to which his characters were condemned and so his whole scheme is therefore false.
The ancients, for their part, might be thought to have seen the time before death differently. Cicero sees people as only fighting what nature has bestowed when they decry old age, when what is the case is that they can continue to exercise their powers to be wise or take political action even if they can no longer climb the riggings of ships. Old people can go on doing the important things they always did if they have the good character to do those things. The trouble with this argument, of course, is even that comes to an end, and so one can deplore the end of invention and of most pleasures, whenever that should come. It may be that we are so taken up with the Christian vision that we read life backwards, from its end to its beginning, and so insist that the final twist is the important thing, not the straightforward course of a life where one just is the kind of person one is.
But go even farther back, to “Oedipus at Colonus”. Oedipus has been beaten down and suffered from a crime which he insists was just an accident or coincidence. He is blind and weak, but he retains his verbal abilities, as those are supplemented by his daughter, and he continues to live in that he still wants and expects there to be dramatic events in his life which means that there will be reversals in the plot that are revelatory. In his case, that means that some religious and political authority will provide him with sanctuary so that he can consider himself redeemed. And Cicero was also assuming that people would go on exercising their powers to make a difference, to have change take place in their lives. And so it is with moderns, with actual oldsters, who cultivate new friendships, new loves, or a new found appreciation by others, or even just do that vicariously in that they deal with the ever unraveling and revealing world of politics that never stops having dramatic revelations take place in the lives of its leading characters and in the unfolding history of the nation. We moderns may not read life backwards, from ending to beginning, but we do read it as a never ending process of change, of new beginnings even at the end.
The difference between ancients and moderns, on the one hand, and Christians, on the other, may be this: ancients and moderns are engaged, amazingly, in a great game of denial whereby they put out of their minds that they will die. They go through this difficult process so that they do not have to experience the dread that would come from focusing on the fact of death and the simple reason for engaging in this difficult process is that to do otherwise would lead to all sorts of bad feelings: fear, paralysis, bad thoughts, Christians as a matter of fact may engage in the same sort of denial for the reason that they too don’t want to dwell on death even though they accept as true an ideology that treats death as a reward or the beginning of a punishment, rather than as an ending. Every person, Christian or secularist, just wants to get on with living as long as they can.
Sociologists were wrong to think that old people are disengaging from their lives, as if in anticipation of the fact that they will undergo the ultimate disengagement, which is from life itself. Rather, what old people do, and this is more and more true as we progress further in the age of enlightenment, is to alienate themselves from their disabilities. Those are just matters to be managed. A heart is just a pump, not the symbolic much less actual seat of emotions, and a breast is a mammary gland rather than the symbol of a woman’s femininity. People can be rid of the naturally occurring versions of these things and be fully human. To be human, what you need is the desire to manage those parts of life which are manageable, and take some cheer in that.