A couple of days ago, Johan P. Mackenbach, an economist from Rotterdam, published on Project Syndicate an article on disparities in life expectancy between people in lower vs. upper strata in advanced industrialized countries, with the title “Only the Poor Die Young” and arguing that life estimates of one’s life expectancy at birth today varies as much as 5 to 10 years, depending on whether one is born in the lower socio-economic strata or in the upper ones. Much of this discrepancy, apparently, is attributed to behavioral differences: people of the lower socio-economic background are less likely to follow healthy living advice--to abstain from smoking, avoid high-cholesterol foods, etc..This article made me think about life and death, in general, and of the process that leads from life to death--the process of life, actually, which in this context we call “aging.” Few people in advanced industrialized societies actually die “young.” What Mackenbach means by “young” is, probably, quite old, but not as old as one may become--80 instead of 85 or 90, perhaps, or, 75 instead of 80 or 85. Is a life prolonged by giving up on certain pleasure--smoking, let’s say--necessarily better than a life full of whatever gives one pleasure but ten years shorter? I wouldn’t know about smoking--I never smoked-- but I know some who would not give it for the world. A more important question is: Is a longer life necessarily a better life? Would we want to live eternally?It is true, that in our culture, embedded in monotheism and for this reason logical to the core, we have experienced death as a problem: it appears to us the very contradiction of life. Christianity, in particular, is dedicated to resolving this problem--and promises eternal life to the faithful. At the dawn of modernity, its solution--the immortality of the soul--was no longer satisfactory for some believers. John Donne, the great religious poet, complained bitterly in the 17thcentury about the Providential plan:
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite;
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My world’s both parts, and O, both parts must die.
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday ……….
Of course, in Donne’s time very few lived as long as the great majority among us do, even among those in the lower socio-economic strata. Donne himself died at 59, a ripe old age in the 17th century, which to most of us would seem very early.
But is it? By the time of his death he had suffered much. His health was poor (it is said he had died of stomach cancer). Much more important, he had lost several close friends and his daughter Lucy--can there be anything worse for a loving father than losing a child? The most he could expect from life at that point was the most we can expect after 59: that things would not become worse still. But there was little hope of that. It is likely that one’s health deteriorates with advancing age, that one suffers more losses, that one’s social environment--so important for our well-being--becomes less comfortable as active involvement becomes more difficult and one loses influence to younger people, becomes more dependent on others, and must watch one’s resources (of all kinds) dwindle.
I am undecided on this question. Yet, certainly there is some justification for the view that a shorter life is a better life, according to the principle:
All’s well that ends well –
Quick death -- before you have your fill of sorrow,
Before all hope is gone, before you dread tomorrow
And each today becomes a prison cell…
Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience