How can we reflect on our own death in a way that helps deepen our understanding? Part of the answer is to look at our ageing selves from different angles.
There is a lot of wisdom in the pages of Atul Gawande’s non-fiction book, Being Mortal, some of which may help us to accept our mortality. Here is a small and (I think) relevant sample:
It turns out that inheritance has surprising little influence on longevity…If our genes explain less than we imagined, the classical wear-and-tear model may explain more than we knew. Leonid Gavrilov, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually. As engineers have long recognized, simple devices typically do not age. They function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant. A windup toy, for example, works smoothly until a gear rusts or a spring breaks, and then it doesn’t work at all. But complex systems – power plants, say – have to survive and function despite having thousands of critical, potentially fragile components. Engineers therefore design these machines with multiple layers of redundancy: with backup systems and backup systems for the backup systems. The backups may not be as efficient as the first-line components, but they allow the machine to keep going even as damage accumulates. Gavrilov argues that, within the parameters established by our genes, that’s exactly how human beings appear to work.
…Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organisations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.
…I asked Silverstone whether gerontologists have discerned any particular, reproducible pathway to ageing. “No,” he said. “We just fall apart.”
We can shift gears from fretting about ourselves to seeing that we are like everyone else, and that all of us are ageing all the time. Barring an accident, we are likely to die of either a specific disease or the gradual accumulation of broken bits of the complex system that is our body. Modern medicine has extended the average lifespan significantly, but it hasn’t changed the essential functioning of our bodies. Eventually, we just fall apart, and this is not a crisis but the normal, unstoppable work of nature. Accepting this reality may allow us to relax, enjoy the days that we have, and give a thought to what’s most important right now.