Contemplating Mortality and the Prospects of Age

At what age did you realise you were not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?

I’m not completely sure it’s sunk in even now.

I mean, in the abstract of course I understand that I will one day die. Even at 32 I am beginning to notice the first small signs that I am not as young as I was, and that age is undoubtedly beginning to have its way with me. In the most logical, on paper way, I understand that my day might come and that day might be tomorrow, it might be in another fifty or so years, it might be anywhere in-between. But who on earth is capable of imagining what that will be like? Even the most creative human mind needs some frame of reference for the imagination, and there isn’t a soul on this planet who can provide a frame of reference for death. Death is the last great taboo. Nobody wants to talk about it because nobody wants to think about it. It’s the ultimate unknown, the only thing that cannot become a lesson in itself, not for the individual, anyway. Nobody but the living can learn from death. 

Part of the human condition has always been the attraction to the concept of immortality. As beings with a limited lifespan, and a comparatively short one in the grand scheme of life on earth, we are intrigued by, and desperate for, a solution which might mean extending those years. But with a caveat, of course. Nobody wants to spend hundreds of years living in an aged body, the skin deep beauty of youth long since lost and the cruel japes of old age pressing on every joint. 

But to stay young, and live forever, well that’s the premise for one of the most popular literary themes of the past few hundred years, isn’t it? 

When you come right down to it, the general idea of the vampire is rather disgusting. Drinking blood and only appearing at night, on the surface just doesn’t sound like an overly appealing way to be. But the idea that this is the trade off for immortality and eternal youth has pushed the vampire myth well towards the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a romanticised idea, upon which tale after tale has been based. If the pull of eternal youth is strong enough to make the less savoury aspects of being a vampire seem perfectly sane, even desirable, then this is evidence that it is a powerful pull indeed.

But back to reality, and the progress of modern medicine not only in the sense of effective immunisation and cures, safer birth methods and advances in the treatment of previously short-term terminal illnesses, but also in the fields of cosmetic surgery. With enough money, (and seemingly a little luck, or at least sound research into the right surgeon), a sixty-plus year old can have the appearance of a 40-something. Whilst this doesn’t address the issue of mortality, of course, it’s yet another way in which a person can put off having to think about the matter. I suspect it’s far easier to brush off the  of your own impending demise when the face staring back at you from the mirror is relatively smooth and wrinkle free. 

Then there’s cryogenics. A concept which has seemingly grown in popularity during recent years, I had already been aware of the general idea when I saw an exhibition a few years ago at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford called ‘The Prospect of Immortality’. The photographer, Murray Ballard, had spent time documenting the “tiny but dedicated international cryogenics industry”, producing a final exhibition of striking, massive format pieces in beautiful colour alongside audio recordings of some of the people involved in the industry, from the doctors taking care of the patients through to the prospective patients themselves. The work provides an absolutely fascinating insight into this extremely niche, and much ridiculed, prospect, and offers further evidence of the lengths that the human race may go to in the name of extending their natural lifespan. 

The entire idea of immortality of course is only attractive as the abstract concept. I wonder if any person could live with the reality of it. Even assuming that many of the difficulties of a long life at the moment reside in the issues which old age presents, and further assuming that those difficulties might be eradicated with the aid of further medical advancements and the halting of the physical ageing process, I can’t imagine living for hundreds of years. But, life expectancy on average has been steadily climbing, and as science presents further advancements, who’s to say that the curve will not continue to rise? Even now, based on my own family history, and assuming that none of the stupid things I’ve put my body through over the years affect my own life expectancy, the possibility of my reaching my nineties is reasonably high. 

On the other hand, that still means that I’ve lived a third of my life already, and if I’m unlucky, maybe half or more. Which is a depressing thought, and going back to my opening statements, one which I’d certainly prefer not to think too hard about.

That way, I suspect, madness lies.

Response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt for October 20th.

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