Ideas that add up #96

It certainly is not hard to see the appeal of the “forever young” movement. The prime of my life has been, on balance, pretty satisfying, so why stop now? Why not more of a good thing? And more? And more?

But something about this new philosophy of old age does not sit right with me, and it took the prospect of those dental implants to prompt me to examine why. I suspect that if I were to take this popularly accepted route, I would miss out on something deeply significant: I would deny myself a unique and invaluable stage of life. I have deep-seated qualms about going directly from a protracted prime of life to old old age — the now attenuated period of senility and extreme infirmity that precedes death. I am seriously concerned that on that route I would miss for eternity ever simply being authentically and contentedly old.

Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus

Writing in his early seventies, Klein journeys back to the island of Hydra in the Aegean Sea to hang out with the locals and muse on ageing. Tasso and the other old boys on the terrace outside Dimitri’s taverna, playing backgammon and sipping coffee, come to embody, for Klein, Epicurus’s ideal of old age as the pinnacle of life — not to be missed — along with companionship as the greatest of all life’s pleasures.

A terrific programme on Radio 4 last night, on our weirdly elongated lifespan (average life-expectancy of children born in the UK today is estimated at 100 years) touched on similar ground. We now outlive many of the ailments and accidents that would have mopped us up in earlier times, but the body decays at the same rate as ever — with the result that more of us get to experience the miserable quality of life of the old old. Dementia already robs some 30% of us of ourselves, and that ratio is predicted to rise to 50%.

We can busy ourselves to fend off the early symptoms of decrepitude, racing ahead and gaining chronos (aka clock time) in the process. But if we don’t slow down enough to savour life itself, even life in its diminished, grey-haired guise, then it seems we sacrifice kairos (lived time).

There are two ways of extending life. One is to move the points, birth and death, far away from one another. The other method is to leave them where they are, and to walk between them more slowly. In a daydream…time stretches. Move sideways…a different possibility of life. Maybe that’s the immortality of the crab…

The Immortality of the Crab” in the BBC Radio 4 series Future Proofing, 20/9/14
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