Who wants to live forever?

08Apr09

tutankhamunIt’s official: I have reached middle age. Kind of. 

I say “kind of” because medical diagnoses on the internet are about as reliable as expecting a London bus to arrive on time. Yet, according to www.livingto100.com‘s Life Expectancy Calculator – which uses “the most current and carefully researched medical and scientific data” to estimate how old you will live to be – it is now a possibility that my current lifestyle and diet will get me to the grand old age of 86 – that’s twice 43 where I currently find myself. Hence I am middle aged.

So at 86, as I snooze – open-mouthed, dribbling and toothless – in the audience celebrating the centenary of the arrival of The Mousetrap on the West End stage – for it will surely still be playing in the year 2052 – my soul will extract itself from its mortal remains and begin its eternal flight. It will finally be free to: 1) discover all the things that had been gathering dust on the top of the wardrobe I never managed to reach; 2) find out how John F.Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Tutankhamun really died (as if I will really care by then); and 3) thank and shake the hands – or whatever they do in the non-physical realm where hands are no longer needed – of those great souls whose work I admired so much in this world – Mozart, Walt Disney, Tommy Cooper … the list goes on with increasing levels of post-modern irony.

I am really quite happy with the prognosis of getting to 86. It seems quite long enough to do the things one wants to do. Yet throughout human history there have always been those who would prefer to find ways of sticking around longer. Janacek wrote a spine-tingling opera about one such character called The Makropolous Case. It’s the story of a soprano at the Vienna Opera, who is actually 337 years old and remarkably, still singing like a canary. During her life, she has travelled from place to place, assuming many identities but always keeping the initials E.M – for example, Eugenia Montez, Ekaterina Myshkin and Elian McGregor. Originally her name was Elina Makropulos, daughter of a Prague alchemist who prepared a potion that would extend life by three centuries. She’s always on the move and is one of the best singers of all time –  but her secret prevents her from feeling real love for anybody: she has had to leave behind so many husbands, sons, and lovers knowing that they will die while she lives on, and on, and on. It’s a lonely life. So extreme longevity is not without its setbacks. A more appropriate name for the doomed EM to take would be Eternal Monotony.

All this musing on immortality has been prompted by my reading a review of a new book called Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer in which its author, David Boyd Haycock, charts the human desire to stick around for as long as we can. I have learned for example that when King David was “old and stricken in years”, they “covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.” The girl was brought and “cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not,” which is probably a good thing because any kind of knowing, in the Biblical sense, would probably have had the opposite effect and killed the old boy off.

The girl came from the tribe of Shunammite and the practice of “Shunamitism” continued to be prescribed by doctors well into the enlightened era. By the 17th century, the philosopher Francis Bacon still approved of the practice, but suggested however that puppies might serve just as well as young maidens. Seems like a Snoopy comic book I enjoyed as a child entitled, “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” may have had its roots in Shunamitism. I read recently that there are organisations that take dogs into hospitals to cheer up the patients. Dogs, barring Snoopy, rarely cheer me up. To my eyes, they seem to contribute to increased stress levels in their owners who constantly yell at them and push them away from licking their faces. 

There’s probably some truth in the fact that being in the presence of youthful vitality does uplift the spirits. Playing basketball with them from your wheelchair, however, trailing your intravenous drip behind you, may just push you over the edge.

So what limits my life expectancy to 86? For others it may be stressful work, large amounts of alcohol and tobacco consumption, and daily exposure to polluted city air. For me, I suspect it’s the general mistrust of anything that makes me ache, ie: physical exertion. Plus the hours spent in sedentary pursuits at the computer, oh, and the temptation of almost daily chips. According to at least one modern day scientist, human lives could easily extend to 120 or more if we reduce our calorific intake by 25-50 percent. The immunologist who suggested this, however, and lived by his own exacting rules, died in 2004 at the age of 79. So much for that theory.

Others believe that longevity is already on the radar – in other words, the first person to live to 1000 is probably 70 already. Techniques to repair molecular and cellular damage are already being perfected.

But to what end? What would life be like if it were double – or more – the current expected span? How would we spend our time? Retiring at 65 would be out of the question. Sales of Sudoku puzzle books would go through the roof. The price of tickets to everything would double so that old age concessions could still be offered without bankrupting every arts organisation or travel provider. Attending the Michael Jackson bicentenary tour would be the ultimate nostalgia trip and even spookier than the ageless singer’s forthcoming season at the O2 arena. Tutankhamun lives!

But longevity, it seems, will be an inevitable part of the coming of age of humanity. In his prediction of a far-off, united future for a human race attaining its maturity, Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote, “The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race.”

The world that embraces such a future, which sounds pretty wonderful, will be a very different one from the world we know today. I, for one, departing as I might at 86, won’t be around to see it. Unless, of course, I reduce my calorific intake, put down this laptop and get myself down to the gym – quickly.

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2 Responses to “Who wants to live forever?”

  1. Thanks for this – having done the calculation, I am apparently going to live to be 97 (which is somewhat under my own estimate of 116, based on family history). To increase this by 4.5 years (and therefore get a letter – or is it an email – from the queen, I need to get my blood checked every year (what? I am a blood donor!) and take an aspirin every day – and I can live a whole 6 months longer if I exercise, which seems a complete waste of time if I have to have that half year jumping around and touching my toes – what do they want from a 97 year old?

    So great blog and great to see you today – love, Wendi

  2. Good stuff, I “Stumbled” you. My DIGG account got messed up but I like Stumbling better anyway.


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