Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Life without end

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


JoEllen Collins

In Haruki Murakami's magical book "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle," a precocious teenager named May Kasahara carries on a series of conversations with the narrator. In one particularly profound exchange, she posits the following: "If people lived forever -- if they never got any older -- if they could just go on living in this world, never dying, always healthy -- do you think they'd bother to think hard about these things, the way we're doing now?" She was referring to philosophy, psychology, logic, religion and literature.

I was reminded by this passage of a statement one of my very young daughters made after a pet's demise. She said, "Mommie? Don't you think life would be boring if we never died?" I remember being stunned at this thought in one so innocent, but since she had just a week earlier decided that she wanted to be a jacket if possible because "jackets don't die, like people," I assumed this latest question was the logical outcome of her earlier ruminations on mortality. We talked for a long time about her concerns, but the ideas she stimulated have stayed with me ever since.

I do think hard about Murakami's "things" (my relation to the larger world, for example), possibly because of the tentative nature of our existence on this earth. The old adage about living each day as if it were one's last works for most people; learning to savor each irreplaceable minute is the fodder of poetry and philosophy.

As I approach a really big birthday this summer, I can't avoid meditations upon my own mortality and upon the ways I am using precious time. Reading the latest research predicting very long lives for most people in the fairly near future doesn't help. I think it is natural to want to be among those lucky people who will be able to extend their lives. At least I think so now, relatively healthy and loving my existence. Of course, the implications are frightening for our social systems and the general health of the world if we accumulate an even greater percentage of seniors, but I also assume that civilizations will adjust to the existence of masses of centenarians in ways I can't even imagine. And no one will ever be guaranteed immortality: accidents, war and other factors make that reality a given. The Grim Reaper will still harvest his crop. Yep, he'll even pay me a visit, though, as my friend said just yesterday, maybe we don't want to be so polite that we take our turn too early!

I don't quite know why I yearn to live longer than is probably possible. Intellectually, I agree that we are given a span on earth that is finite, a natural limit. Not to accept that fact is naïve and futile. I am not entitled to any more years on this earth than any other person. Yet I find myself emotionally, more than anything, wanting to reach a ripe old age out of curiosity; I want to know what happens, say, in 25 years. I'd like to be around long enough to hold grandchildren in my arms and maybe even see them graduate from college or get married.

Whether or not curiosity about the future is why I rage against the thought of life's end, I have learned to stifle this tendency to fear the inevitable. Instead, I try to seek the greater pleasures of indulging my curiosity in the present. Travel, reading, appreciating the magnificent outdoors, creating my art, being with my family, love, and friends, both canine and human: these are the activities that make life worthwhile, no matter how long it may be.

I can certainly admire the great artist Goya's portrayal of an old man in a child's swing, his expression gleeful as he pumps into a higher arc. Drawn in his last few years, this sketch reflects the artist's profound passion for life.

As with most of the philosophical issues we contemplate, Shakespeare summed it up in the most crystal-clear poetry ever written; in "Sonnet 73" the Bard reflects on getting old. He compares his late-life season to boughs of trees absent their choirs of birds, to twilight hours of fading sunset, and to the embers left from youth's flaming fires. These immortal lines say it best, whether relating to a love or to life:

"This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long."

Here's to cherishing every moment.

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