Making peace with death: the ideal human lifespan

I’ve just finished reading The Consolations of Mortality:  Making Sense of Death by Andrew Stark.  I enjoyed the book, but instead of reviewing it, I prefer to give some thoughts it prompted in me.  The author’s goal is to find a way to reconcile people like himself to their own mortality, people like himself being those who do not believe in an afterlife and see life as a good thing rather than a vale of tears best escaped.  Life has been good to me, and I do have trouble believing in a life after this one, so the book appealed to me.  Still, one might sense a contradiction in the whole project.  The search for consolation–arguments to justify a desired emotional state rather than a search for truth irrespective of how it might make one feel–is an invitation to dishonesty, and yet Professor Stark seems to be a very honest man, so that much of the book involves him probing suggested reasons not to fear death and finding that they fail to hold up upon examination.

Only an honest man would undertake such a “dishonest” inquiry.  The less scrupulous man avails himself of the strategy described so vividly by Pascal:  distraction.  In fact, most of us have little difficulty avoiding thinking about the most unpleasant of topics.  Pascal’s point was not that we humans indulge in diversions–one assumes there would have been play even in Eden–but that we do so compulsively.  The distraction strategy doesn’t give genuine peace (Pascal himself doesn’t recommend it), but it does pass the years pleasantly.  From a utilitarian standpoint, Montaigne’s strategy of meditating constantly on death so that it is less alien when it comes makes no sense:  inflict glum decades on oneself to have an easier final month, or day, or hour?

Do we not see a cultural residue of Christianity in this sense of the absolute importance of a man’s spiritual state at death?  Why is it so important that a man “dies well”?  (As Captain Kirk said, “How we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”)  Likewise, the overall judgement of a man’s life hinges on his repenting his sins before the end.  I have elsewhere pointed to this sense of the ambiguity of one’s life, its mix of good and evil, being resolved one way or the other at death as a key feature of the Christian way of living, the constant presence of the horizon of Judgement.

There are different consolations in the face of death because there are different anxieties caused by death.  Is it your animal instinct of self-preservation that rebels at the prospect of extinction?  Are you bothered by the experiences and opportunities you will miss?  Do you worry that you will be forgotten?  Are you frustrated that so little of your potential will have a chance to be realized?

I had an aunt and uncle that were always moving.  They’d go someplace, stay a few years, and then leave.  It was terribly costly, and my other relatives didn’t understand it, but I always suspected there was a fear of death involved on some level.  Settling down in the place you’re going to stay means accepting your life as finite, that the endless possibilities of youth have closed and the remainder is largely set.  I, on the other hand, was long frustrated living in apartments; I wanted to move to the house I would die in.  To me, when a life becomes something finite, it becomes something definite, and the really meaningful part of life only begins when you finally plant yourself and start building.  This is also the way I feel about marriage.

Stark ultimately does conclude that mortality is better than immortality, but to get to this conclusion, he must argue that immortality would ultimately be a bad thing because life would become boring or meaningless or something of the sort.  To really work psychologically, I think one needs to prove something stronger:  that it would be bad to live far in excess of what we call a normal lifetime.  How much better would I feel knowing that life would lose its savor after ten thousand years when I have been granted less than one hundred?  Would it not be better to accept Christianity’s honest appraisal of death as a calamity, explicable only as a consequence of original sin?

In fact, I think we can see that an average lifespan of around 75 years is about right.  The most important thing most people do, the thing that brings most meaning to their lives, is to raise children.  What is the ideal number of children to have?  I would not think it would be far in excess of that needed for population replacement, because we hardly want a gruesome level of child mortality in our ideal world, but I know that some readers would disagree; still, we probably all agree that the ideal number is finite.  If my wife and I kept having babies forever, eventually we’d forget about the early ones, which is repugnant and threatens to sap the meaning from this, our most significant task, which is tied to the value of particular relationships.  If we must come to our last baby eventually, then there shall be an infinite expanse of future after we have completed our work.  Sure, we’ll remain part of our children’s lives after their grown, and our grandchildren’s, but less and less with time.  After all, they can only maintain meaningful relationships with a finite number of generations.  Probably it’s best to bow out as the newer generations move on.  Ironically, the ideal lifespan may be shorter now than it was generations ago, despite improved health of the elderly, because now families move away and grandparents have less of a role than they once did.  Suppose it takes about 25 years to go from birth to establishing one’s own family.  The normal lifespan gives about three of these:  the first to establish one’s own family,  the second to have one’s children and see the first establish their own families, and the third to see the rest of one’s children established and to taste grandparenthood.

What if the thing that really gives your life meaning is some sort of creative endeavor?  Here again, I think 75 years is probably sufficient.  If you haven’t written your novel yet, or made your great contribution to science, or whatever, by then, it probably isn’t going to happen.  And if you’ve set yourself a task that takes more than one lifetime, perhaps it is something that really would be better the work of a community than an individual.

People worry about leaving their mark, about there being something that will outlive them.  You may live on in a sense in the memories of your progeny or in the public’s engagement with your creative works, but these monuments to you are themselves mortal.  So the key to this consolation of having something to outlive you is making sure you go first.  Very few of us leave a mark that will be there in a hundred years, and none of us want to still be around when that mark is gone.

And yet, I still feel that the faith was right to call death an enemy, something unnatural and unintended in the original scheme of things.

20 thoughts on “Making peace with death: the ideal human lifespan

  1. Pingback: How could the Alt Right have misjudged Trump so badly? | Throne and Altar

  2. It’s not death that worries me so much as dying. I watched my father decline into helplessness, boredom, and humiliation, and my mother into a decade of fading away because of dementia. The prolonged agony is the prospect that terrifies me.

    As for death — I like John Donne’s meditation:

    Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
    For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
    Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
    And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
    And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally
    And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

  3. Death is supposed to be horrible and disturbing really. Honestly listening to atheists “bravely face” it never really avoids the feeling of whistling in the dark. I think the more honest ones are the ones who just know it’s inevitable and have decided that worrying about no

  4. Pingback: Making peace with death: the ideal human lifespan | Reaction Times

  5. I am not so worried about how my death will be for me as I am about how it will be for my children (and, now, grandchildren). A few years ago I told my youngest son, then in his senior year of college, that I could feel my death already looming. I wasn’t emotional about it or anything; I’ve had too many close embraces with my death for it to seem strange, or threatening. But I wanted him to be ready. He quietly said, “Dad, I know you have to die someday, but when I hear you say that it fills me with terror.”

    I suppose my next job, now that they are grown, is to let them see that they don’t need me there in the background to call upon. I hope I last long enough for them to learn that lesson.

    As for the proper human life span, it seems clear to me that it is everlasting. And I am confident that it will be. The alternative is incoherent, given Omnipotent Goodness. I’m not then so worried about finishing my magnum opus before I die. I’ll finish it sooner or later. Nor do I worry that everlasting life might ever pall. How could it, when it would by definition involve continual refreshment of vim? There will always be lots of new and interesting things to do, and to try, and to learn; and there will always be a store of fresh energy and excitement at the prospect.

    Ennui is an aspect of our fallen mortality. Once I’m dead and done with that, there will be even less chance of boredom than at present.

    • My children are very young, and my biggest fear is that they would have to grow up in a strange and difficult time with only one parent and insufficient love, help, and direction.
      Right now I think I would be okay with passing on when they reach adulthood.
      (Though, of course, I am also adverse to physical suffering)

  6. Interesting that my argument at best only works for the modern age of weak families, where children drift away from their parents when grown. What would be wrong with maintaining intense relationships with a couple generations on either side perpetually? Just that we don’t do it anymore. People stopped believing in an afterlife at the same time immortality stopped seeming attractive.

    • I would suggest further that immortality stopped seeming attractive when men began to forget or misconstrue the orthodox Christian vision of the afterlife, and began to fall again into the orbit of the Gnostic strange attractor. Most modern Christians don’t know about the resurrection of the body – even those who publicly profess their belief in it every Sunday. A fortiori, they have not considered what that doctrine must entail about what the afterlife is like. They envision it, like pagans, as Hades – a realm of anhedonic shades – but with blue skies and harmless cumuli. So it seems to them meagre, thin and wan, and incomprehensible: pointless.

  7. I have often heard it said that “life is a gift” but this seems a little incoherent (to borrow an oft used Othospherian label). How can a gift be given if there is nobody to receive it before it is given? Also, life is an experience that can be either good or bad. Is the potential for a bad life when you did not ask for it or consent to receive it really a gift or is it a burden?

      • I have two children actually. My point is that life is not a gift in the traditional sense. That is, gift giving typically assumes the party receiving the gift exists prior to the exchange.

      • If you have children, can you understand why parents often view themselves as giving the gift of themselves to their children, first siring them and then forming their development? Perhaps for this reason, names such as “Father” and “Son” are associated with God, as well as the notion that life is a gift from God.

    • What is good, and what is bad, and how does that relate to a particular experience? Those are the questions. If the ultimate purpose of life is hedonic maximization, then we are stuck in a very bad universe.

    • “And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.”

      The fundamental is discipline, but not discipline obtained through the threat of punishment, but flowing from the heart. The second is the direction of the heart, the infinite desires of the heart can only find peace in the infinite waters of an infinite Being. Discipline for its own sake, or discipline directed at making an idol of the self or some leader brings destruction.

      Do all persons have an opportunity in this life to love God (if perhaps only in their own way)? Do they have the capacity to obey God? If so, then life is a good opportunity.

  8. Kristor suggested a point that should be emphasized, namely, that telling your grown children that you are prepared for death prepares them for the eventuality. When my father of blessed memory, a widower, turned seventy he said to me and my brother, “I have had my three score and ten years; now, the rest is gravy.” Whenever he would come to visit (for a month in both summer and winter) or when we visited him, he would give me orders about exactly what to do when he died: “First, take out all of the money from our joint bank account and put it into your own. Take care of your brother and give him half of everything. Go through all of the papers in this drawer. Here are the keys in this drawer. Bury me in my wedding suit, which is kept here in this closet. Get in touch with the priest for these funeral details and Quantico National cemetery for these burial details. Then call everybody in this address book and tell them that I am gone.” Each time I told him that I did not want to hear it.

    Years later, when he died in his sleep in his home, and I received a phone caller who said, “This is Officer Brian H_ from the S_ police department….um… this is hard,” I answered, “Ah, my father is gone. It will be alright.” And I proceeded to console the young officer on his first death notification. Then, I did everything my father had told me to do. Moreover, I realized that he had prepared me emotionally and spiritually for his passing on to the Lord. His example of being close to his family, to Christ, and to The Church lightened the burden of losing him as well as lightened the burden of considering our own departure from the earthly realm.

  9. Not only must life be finite, but life must be judged to have real meaning. God cannot hand out participation trophies, or how one uses the gift of life would not matter. Yet the triumphant award cannot be provided to an absence.

    So not immortality in this particular, fallen, corporeal life, but not a complete discontinuity, or total dissolution, makes the struggle of life worth engaging. This is too self-centered and not adequately God-centered, but I think works at level 1.

    I have always wondered why atheists have memorial services or burial, since once they die they are “just gone for good”. What is the point of memory?

  10. I once saw a youtube video of a professional atheist asked what he would do if he died and discovered he was wrong. He proceeded to indicate how he would tell the Father Almighty to stuff it in so many words.

    It was pretty clear the source of his convictions was not “reason” or “science” or “philosophy”, here was a man who hated God, and hated life itself, and his response to God was disobedience, not ultimately denial. Can a man hate someone who doesn’t exist? An interesting question, but not a metaphysical problem for a theist.

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