Living longer

Desires are always desires for something — normally something you currently don't have (or don't have enough of, in your view). What you desire is also something that you value, that you think is good for you, that is worth having. You can desire something even when you know you can't get it; but you never desire something you do not really want. A case in point is the desire for a longer life. It is very common, but that doesn't make it sensible, of course. And that, in turn, throws a dubious light on the supposed value of living longer.

The trouble is: when you are in a situation where you desire a longer life, it is typically very late already. You're looking back on a stretch of your life time that you now think should have been different; you'd now like to rewind to its beginning, and relive it. If you were satisfied with your life so far, you wouldn't want to have any time from it back for living through it again, and differently.

You might want to object to this: it does seem conceivable for someone to look back fully satisfied onto their past life, not wanting to change a single day of it, feeling that it was the best life they could possibly have had — and simply want it to go on, fulfilling as it has been so far. What could be even better than being able to look back on a fulfilled life, if not looking at a future that will be equally fulfilling for quite some further time (instead of being over sometime soon)?

Imagine someone who has dedicated his life to experiencing as many pleasures as possible, an adventurer in life style, a lover of good meals, pleasant places, exciting company, a hunter of the most exquisite tastes, a collector of beauty, a connoisseur of the joys of life. Would not someone who has arranged his entire life around this goal, and successfully, wouldn't someone like that plausibly just wish to be able to experience it for some more time? Wouldn't the most plausible desire in that situation be to be able to continue with it?

I don't think so. In part, that is because pleasures aren't infinite — they can't be prolonged indefinitely without loss of intensity and attraction. (This applies both to single episodes of pleasant experience and series' of tasting the same kind of pleasure again and again.) Part of what makes pleasures appealing, especially those of the sensual type, that is, the pleasures of food, drink or sex, is the charm of the new, the allure of the unknown, the surprise factor. But once you've had them, and had them twice, thrice, and often, they quickly lose much of their attractiveness and become stale, gray and heavily in need of replacement, or some supplement of new stimulants.

Increasing the intensity may help for a while, but the potential of this move is equally constrained. At the latest, when biological limits come into play even the most pleasant feeling can tip over and transform into pain or disgust at what has been sweet and agreeable just before. (It's not by accident that the heroes of the aesthetic life are inevitably pictured as ending in ennui and disgust with their surroundings after pursuing it too long, and too exclusively. And that is not to mention the physical exhaustion and damaged health that tend to come with it as well.)

Partly, then, the life of pleasure is not of the sort that one will likely wish to go on with — quite the contrary. Since it arises out of neediness and the longing for ever more and higher intensity, it is virtually guaranteed to end in deep dissatisfaction. The painful craving for the new and the stronger will increase up to the point where it can't be stilled any more. (And neither, at that time, can there be any viable path back to a modest level.) More generally, something very similar goes for lives that center around the striving for money, fame or power.

Partly, also, someone who has aimed all his life for things which depend as heavily on good fortune and a favorable environment as pleasure, wealth or celebrity would have to admit to himself that he must have been lucky to the extreme if he can say that he was even mostly successful with it. We all know only too well how unreliable the circumstances of our lives normally are, and it's really unlikely that, in the real world, anybody can enjoy the best of luck for most of his time. If someone actually did look back on a long, lucky life with not even a distraction by the accidents that usually happen, the least thing on his mind would be the expectation that this extraordinary exemption could be prolonged for another extended period, tempting fate just further.

If it isn't for the prolongation of a misdirected life built on the pursuit of external things, what motives could one have for desiring to live longer, to get some more time? Except for the short phases in our lives when we actually know how long we still have (such as in cases of terminal illness, or more generally when we get to the point where we feel that our last moment has arrived), it seems not even a coherent idea. Consider: "I don't know how long I still have; maybe decades, maybe just a couple of years, or I might even die tomorrow in a car crash — but however long it is, I wish I had six months more." That doesn't make any sense.

People may have such a desire at the end of an unsuccessful life. Looking back, it may seem to them that they still have unfinished business, that they haven't reached their goals, that there are mistakes to be corrected, bad deeds to be rectified. But how realistic is that? If what has gone wrong was due to external circumstances, then once more: Why do you suppose a few additional months or years wouldn't just give you more of the same? Chances are mostly against you. You behave like a compulsive gambler, standing at the roulette table, after having lost everything, and just trying to extract some loan from a friend. "I just need a few more tries, I'm so close..." (evidently, you aren't). On the other hand, if the failures in your past were of your own making, if you have made the wrong choices, taken bad decisions, indulged your weaknesses too much and too often, then again: you had so many chances already to become better in leading a life. Why didn't you? You knew from the beginning there wouldn't be a second take, you knew there was only one life, you knew it had to end some day. If you hadn't ignored all that studiously as long as you could, your standing would be much better now. Your chance was then; but now it is gone.

From all this it seems that the desire for a longer life, widespread though it may be, invariably emerges from a misguided approach to leading one's life. The question remains, then, if and how those who do it right, and do it well, will be free of that desire. I think it must be so. Living a good life is not something that scales with its length: it won't become better just by taking longer; nor is there anything to fear about its end, whenever it comes. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.