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Friday, April 4, 2008

Michael Kinsley on Longevity

The New Yorker has a piece this week by Michael Kinsley on living a long life.  He tells movingly about his struggle with Parkinson's Disease and the desire by many for a longer life.  He writes,

. . . .  What’s more, of all the gifts that life and luck can bestow—money, good looks, love, power—longevity is the one that people seem least reluctant to brag about. In fact, they routinely claim it as some sort of virtue—as if living to ninety were primarily the result of hard work or prayer, rather than good genes and never getting run over by a truck. Maybe the possibility that the truck is on your agenda for later this morning makes the bragging acceptable. The longevity game is one that really isn’t over till it’s over.

Between what your parents gave you to start with—genetically or culturally or financially—and pure luck, you play a small role in determining how long you live. And even if you add a few years through your own initiative, by doing all the right things in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, vitamins, and so on, why is that to your moral credit? Extending your own life expectancy is the most selfish motive imaginable for doing anything. Do it, by all means. I do. But for heaven’s sake don’t take a bow and expect applause.

This is the game that really counts. Perhaps you imagine that, as eternity approaches, the petty ambitions and rivalries of this life melt away. Perhaps they do. That doesn’t mean that the competition is over. It means that the biggest competition of all is about to start. Do you doubt it? Ask yourself: what do you have now, and what do you covet, that you would not gladly trade for, say, five extra years? These would be good years, of cross-country skiing between fashionable Colorado resorts, or at least years when you could still walk and think and read and drive. You would still be a player in whatever game you spent your life playing: still invited to faraway conferences about other people’s problems, if you ever were; still baking your famous chocolate-chip banana bread for the family if your life followed a less McNamarish course. What would you trade for that? Or, rather, what wouldn’t you trade? O.K., you’d give up years for the health and happiness of your children. What else? Peace in the Middle East? A solution to global warming? A cure for AIDS? These negotiations are secret, mind you. No one will know if you selfishly choose a few extra years for yourself over an extra million or two for Planet Earth. We’ll posit that you’re a good person, though, and that to spare the earth from a couple of the Four Horsemen you’d accept a shorter span for yourself. . . .

Anyway, back to you. Children, country, future of the world are off the table. And, yes, these are the important things. But there are other things that make life sweet. The baby-boom generation in America is thought to have found something approaching genuine happiness in material possessions. A popular bumper sticker back in the nineteen-eighties read, “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” This was thought to be a brilliant encapsulation of the baby-boom generation’s shallowness, greed, excessive competitiveness, and love of possessions. And it may well be all of these things. It’s also fundamentally wrong. Is there anything in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue—or even listed on Realtor.com—for which you would give up five years? Of course not. That sports car may be to die for, but in fact you wouldn’t. What good are the toys if you’re dead? “He Who Dies Last”—he’s the one who wins. . . .

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