I like Isaac Stern’s views on age:
‘[It] is relative. I look at my “old” friend X who is in his sixties, and at my “young” friend Arthur Rubinstein who is 90 years old…It can’t be measured in years. It depends on the person. Everybody is different.’
They are quoted by Lisl Goodman in an academic research study described by the NY Times as ‘thick with hope’. ‘Since childhood,’ she writes in the preface to “Death and the Creative Life”, ‘I have been plagued by the idea of death approaching in Juggernaut fashion with no possibility of escape. I remember sitting on the floor with my building blocks as I thought that if only I could put up a structure – something that has never been built before – I would have a solution for preventing death. The idea of building or creating something special remained the solution, but eventually it changed to a less radical one. It no longer demanded the abolition of death; rather, by making something special of ones life, death could be changed from a catastrophic to a desirable end.’
Goodman decided to interview as many prominent artists and scientists as she could lay her hands on, to see if the fact that they had based the lives on using their creativity had meant they were easier about dying. The feedback seemed to justify her theory, and she quotes Ted Rosenthal – dying of leukemia at 30 – several times: ‘I don’t think people are afraid of death. What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their life.’
So far so good, and I can buy that. But then she leans hard on biologist Rudolf Ehrenberg‘s theories on ‘structurisation’. These argue that the purpose of life is to transform experience into tangible beliefs or achievements, leading to such an increasing process of ‘actualisation’ that death is then nothing but the natural end. Goldman proposes taking this to its logical conclusion (her words) and suggests we measure our lives backwards – not from birth in the usual way but from an (assumed) date of death – D Day. This would concentrate the mind on addressing the number of available years in a productive fashion. It would increase the chances of seeking actualisation, or a realisation of your full and true potential. If you ‘knew’ that you had just five years left, then maybe you’d make up with your ex, get down to your novel and visit Venice.
It’s the same principle that monks used to follow when they kept a skull on their bedside table. The Don’t Forget Principle. Am I tough enough for that?
For me this is a move too far. I suspect I’d find it inhibiting rather than liberating. That I’d be more likely to quarrel with everybody, get depressed and metaphorically pull the bedclothes over my head. How to be objective as D Day approaches?