Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 238 What am I doing here?

Rena was one of my favorite neighbors. She wore this big straw hat when she was in her garden. Mel, her husband, always wore bib overalls, pinstriped. They had the best garden in town. They had rows and rows of beautiful vegetables, an orchard with apples, pears, peaches and figs. They had two big beehives sitting in the middle of the whole thing. They seemed to be on good terms with the bees and everyone in the neighborhood.

Mel had a heart attack in his early eighties. They sold the place and moved into an assisted living facility. They were left wing Roosevelt democrats from the depression era. They read the Nation magazine and listened to Democracy Now. We visited them often. Mel died at age 85 and was buried in his pinstripe bib overalls. Rena lived on several years. Last time we saw her she said, "What am I doing here? I'm not doing myself or anybody else any good.” She toted oxygen around with her in a wheel chair. She still read the Nation and listened to Democracy Now but she knew her life was no longer really worth living. She died at age 96. She just gave it up.

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

Maybe the existentialists had it wrong. The real life of the absurd would be if we were to live forever. The older I get the more I think so. The owner of one of our favorite coffee shops is confident that he will live to 120. He takes care of his health and he counts on modern medical advancements to deliver big time. He is pleased and proud of the idea. It sounds like a dreadful world to me.

Ray Kursweil, a brilliant PhD type, has written books, made movies and given lectures around the world on something he calls Singularity. He claims that we will soon live forever. Our body will be a combination of manufactured medical devices; our mind will be filled with small computer chips that will contain our very essence. This combination will allow life everlasting. It won't be long. Children born today will never have to die.

Imagine such a thing. What would be like if everything didn't die? Would we have fresh flowers? Have you ever tried to enjoy artificial flowers? There is a difference. How many people would be in my town after a couple of hundred years? How many people on earth? Or perhaps we would learn to control our numbers and just eliminate having children. I guess it would only make sense that births would have to be very limited or just eliminated altogether.

What a bleak place it would be. Who among us would not really give up our lives willingly if we knew our existence would prevent children from being born? I suppose some people would argue that they would quickly take up permanent residence if they could. I would not like to live in their world. Try to imagine a world without children. It isn't a very pretty picture, all gray and stagnant. It is all serious, without surprise, without laughter. It is also hard to envision the role of love in a world without death. You could always treat someone badly and make up for it tomorrow or next year or next century.

What would it be like to watch the tragedy of existence continue indefinitely: earthquakes, tornados, wars, ignorance and meanness; that kind of stuff. No one is talking about ending these things.  I should think that death might be a welcome relief.

Then there is boredom. How many football games can you watch on TV? Weather reports? Stock reports? How many newspapers can you read? The lives of my friends, Mel and Rena, remind me that all good things come to an end. Life keeps moving and woe be it those who would mess with this natural phenomena.

Retirement gives us time to think things over. All the grand ideas we have heard throughout a lifetime were only thoughts of other human beings - they were not the conclusions of gods.  Now it our time to think for ourselves. The idea of accepting our own death is a comforting step to take. It relieves us of youthful misconceptions and philosophical rationalizations that are not as substantial as they earlier seemed.

I think of the old poem "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Caulkins, had us memorize some of the lines over 50 years ago:

"...So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”







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