THE HABIT – THE LONG HABIT
Just like our remotest ancestors, we refrain from talking about death, despite the great distance we have come in understanding some of the profound aspects of biology. We have as much distaste for talking about personal death as for thinking about it; it is an indelicacy.
Death on a grand scale does not bother us in the same special way: we can sit around a dinner table and discuss war, involving 60 million volatilized human deaths, as though we were talking about bad weather; we can watch abrupt bloody death every day, in colour, on films and television, without blinking back a tear. It is when the numbers of dead are very small and very close that we begin to think in scurrying circles.
At the very center of the problem is the naked cold deadness of one’s own self, the only reality in nature of which we can have absolute certainty, and it is unmentionable, unthinkable. We may be even less willing to face the issue at first hand than our predecessors because of a secret new hope that maybe it will go away. We like to think, hiding the thought, that with all the marvelous ways in which we seem now to lead nature around by the nose, perhaps we can avoid the central problem if we just become – next year, say – a bit smarter.
“The long habit of living,” said Thomas Browne, “indisposeth us to dying.” These days, the habit has become an addiction: we are hooked on living; the tenacity of its grip on us, and ours on it, grows in intensity. We cannot think of giving it up, even when living loses its zest – even when we have lost the zest for zest. We have come a long way in our technological capacity to put death off, and it is imaginable that we might learn to stall it for even longer periods, perhaps matching the life spans of the Abkhasians, who are said to go on for a century and a half.
If we can rid ourselves of some of our chronic, degenerative diseases, cancer, strokes, and coronaries, we might go on and on. It sounds attractive and reasonable, but it is no certainty. We long for longevity, even in the face of plain evidence that long, long lives are not necessarily pleasurable in the kind of society we have arranged thus far. We will be lucky if we can postpone the search for new technologies for a while, until we have discovered some satisfactory things to do with the extra time. Something will surely have to be found to take the place of sitting on the porch re-examining one’s watch.