Tuesday, February 23, 2010



I am getting older. Every day, time leaves new marks on my body. When the light shines a certain way, I notice time's inscriptions. Lines emanate away from my eyes, especially when I smile. I have more wrinkles on my forehead. My hands are starting to look cracked, crooked and worn. Hair is sprouting up in places I'd rather not discuss. And my teeth aren't so pearly white anymore; in fact, I can feel them getting weaker by the week.

Our bodies doomed to decay. That's the problem with bodies. Beauty and youth please us. But we understand how fleeting they are. We understand that time is never on our side. When we see a beautiful person, we know they won't be so forever. It's all just a matter of time before remorseless months and years erode even the supplest beauties.

Aging is a natural process. But that doesn't make it any more appealing to us. Death is a natural process too; and very few people like death, either. Still, natural processes can be both scary and reassuring. They are scary because no one wants to get old and die. On the other hand, they are reassuring because everyone reliably knows they will happen. Just as everyone knows a flower will wilt and turn brown, so too does everyone know that we all will die one day. That is just what happens in nature. You can see it. And you can apply it to your own life. It is rhythmic. You can count on it.

But let's get back to the scary part. While nature might provide us analogies to understand what will happen to us in the end, it is no less unpleasant to consider. We are, after all, rather vain creatures. We do not like the idea that our youth and appeal may one day fade. We do not like the idea that our beauty will wilt like the flowers in the garden. We experience so many pleasures in youth. And God forbid that time will steal them from us. It is not a pleasant thought.

Still, we must confront it. I confront it a little bit every day when I notice the new little injuries time has left upon me. In a strange way, it makes me reflective. When I notice something going wrong with my body, it makes me remember how long I've been here. It makes me remember how much I've seen and experienced. I go back through the years and I remember the times when my body did not ache the way it does now. I remember when there was no hair in the places it grows now. Our bodies are like fossils; and our memory confirms to us how long we have been here. Although I do not like the idea that I am decaying, I can at least take some pride in the idea that I have made it this far.

Having said all this, my teeth are doomed. I think they are even more doomed than the rest of my body. My constant coffee abuse, advancing age, lack of insurance and insufficient funds portend a dental disaster of unspeakable magnitude. Last year, I managed to scrape up enough money to get an examination, along with a cleaning and whitening (I am still paying interest on the visits). The dentist scraped unbelievable amounts of plaque from places in my mouth I barely knew existed. Then she flossed mysterious cracks in those unknown regions. She drew blood almost every time she hit the gum.

Toward the end, she said: "It's been a while since your last visit, hasn't it?" Then she offered me some Tylenol.

My poor, doomed teeth. It does not help that I have English ancestry. Genetically, the English have bad teeth. My own circumstances make my naturally bad genetic situation even worse. Every day, I notice my gums getting whiter. There are stains between a couple teeth that were not there before. And I can feel my teeth moving in my gumline in a way I have never felt before. Plus, they tell me I have impacted molars that must be removed before they burrow into my nerves. Put simply, I am in dire dental trouble.

But this is what happens when you get older. Time brutally flogs our bodies. There is little we can do about it. It just happens. Sure, we can live as healthy as we possibly can. We can eat right, exercise and even think positively about the future. But these are mere salves: Nothing can stop time's slow, steady, corrosive assault on our flesh.

It would be nice to escape our bodies for a while. While our bodies might offer numerous ways to experience the world's pleasures, they are also enormously restrictive. They can produce as much pain as pleasure. Time's corrosion is just another terror our bodies must confront. Still, it is so easy to put trust in our bodies. It is banal in the truest sense. We know our bodies better than anything else in our lives. We are stuck with them. We see them every day. We monitor them and scrutinize them. We must endure their chemical tempests and painful discomforts. They matter to us because they place insistent demands on us: Feed me; relieve me; give me rest; make me comfortable; make me feel pleasure. If we ignore them, we suffer pain for it. And we learn from earliest memory that pain is not good. So we slavishly pander to our bodies.

It is no accident that the law targets the body. Almost everyone cares about his own body. If there is something no man wants to experience, it is bodily discomfort. So the law threatens to inflict bodily discomfort on anyone who transgresses its commands. While some exceptional people hold their bodies in contempt, they are too rare to make a difference. The law concerns itself with efficacy: It knows that almost everyone fears bodily punishment, so that is what it threatens to maintain order.

So we spend our lives worrying about our bodies until time slowly eradicates them. It is quite a pathetic lot if you think about it. Still, it is completely natural. As living organisms, we want to stay alive. To stay alive, we must preserve our bodies. We fear death largely because it means we can no longer enjoy what life has to offer our bodies. We know that we will die in time because we see what time does to others' bodies. So we fear aging, because we know what it leads to.

But what about life beyond the body? Is it possible to achieve some mental satisfaction without worrying about the body's inevitable decay? Throughout history, we find examples of men who did not put all their faith in bodily comfort. There have been men who lived for something beyond placating their bodies and avoiding death. In fact, we tend to revere men who lived beyond their bodies because they are so rare. It is no accident that Jesus Christ is the central hero in Western Civilization: He gave up his body so that others could enjoy theirs. There is a nobility in life beyond the body because so few people can effectively ignore their bodies. Most people fear aging and death. Most people simply live to experience the pleasures the body can give. Love it or hate it, that is just how we are.

I am no martyr. I am just as worried about my body as the next man. But I fear pain more than I fear death. I wish I could hold my body in contempt. Yet the body is rapaciously insistent; it is difficult to ignore its demands for long. No matter how strongly I believe in abstract principles and ideas, I cannot say whether I could maintain my commitment to them in the face of torture, hunger or agony. I am worried about my hair and my teeth, for goodness' sake; imagine how I would feel if confronted with genuine bodily scourges?

But death is different than pain. Pain is about the body and its limitations. Death is about existence and non-existence. Death rules out the body altogether. In that light, it is easier to romanticize non-existence than pain. In fact, non-existence lends itself much more to abstract principles than mere contempt for the body. Death frees us from concern about the body. Death liberates us from the body's incessant demands and penalties. True, death might cut short our ability to experience the body's joys. But it also forecloses the body's ability to torment us any longer. There is some objective, rational appeal to that possibility. If bodily life--on the whole-- appears to offer more pain than pleasure, why go on living at all? It is better to cease to exist in order to avoid pain than to exist for nothing more than pain.

Yet this broaches another conundrum: What if death does not end our pain? After all, no one has ever reported to us what death is like. No one has come back from that "undiscover'd country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns." Hamlet, Act III, sc. i, lines 80-81. We have all seen aging and pain because living people experience aging and pain. We see what happens to them. They can tell us how bad they feel.

But no one has experienced death and lived to tell about it. Who knows what awaits us there. That is what makes people fear death: Unknowability. Maybe something dreadful happens once we die. No one knows. No one can know. No one can sense anything once they die, let alone communicate what they sense. And that is why death continues to terrify us. So as bad as bodily life may be, we choose to "bear what ills we have,/ [rather] Than fly to others that we know not of." Hamlet, Act III, sc. i, lines 82-83.

I have argued before that it is unreasonable to fear death because death cuts short our bodily ability to sense anything. http://reasoncommercejustice.blogspot.com/2009/05/why-we-fear-death.html. But once again, we see that humans are not invariably reasonable. They fear death even though death eliminates their sensory capacities--including the capacity to experience pain--because they fear the unknown. That fear is not reasonable because reason is based in human sense. Death obliterates sense, so it is not reasonable to fear it.

It is actually more reasonable to fear aging than death. We can sense our bodies aging. We can feel our bodies weakening. We know that aging will bring us more pain and less bodily satisfaction. We can sense all these things. Our reason has something to grasp in that situation.

I reasonably worry about my teeth. I have every reason to believe they are doomed. And I know it's going to hurt.

But with death: Who knows what I'll feel? That is strangely reassuring.


Sarah said...

i think one reason we fear death is we don't want to leave our loved ones. it's a goodbye that's too permanent. to comfort myself i chose to believe there is an afterlife, and it's going to be perfect.

Timoteo said...

Those who live are dying to see what comes next...