On Being Ageless

While in a store recently, I noticed an elderly gentleman working with his smartphone. I felt empathy for him, knowing that his advanced age likely kept him from understanding how to do whatever it was that he was attempting. Technology can be challenging for the older generation; at least, that’s what I’ve read. However, as I moved nearer to him, I was struck with a startling discovery: he was no older than I. In fact, he may well have been younger.

This was not the first time I’ve had this awakening, this discovery that I am not as young as I thought I was. This happens because when I view the world, the one thing I never see is myself. Oh, of course, I see myself in a mirror, but a mirror never shows interaction with others; it just shows me. Yet, what defines all of us is that time we are with others and sharing the experience of life. Even the act of looking into a mirror corrupts what we see because our viewing is generally to assess appearance: attire, neatness, cleanliness, and the like. What we do not see in the mirror is our age, our age as it compares to others.

This disparity in how we view ourselves, compared to how others see us, relates to the fact that our body ages while our brain does not. As a young man, these two views were sufficiently alike to be ignored, but with advancing age the differences become striking. As I view myself, I am still roughly somewhere between 25 and 35 years old, with some changes in my philosophy, political views, and overall focus. And I’m much smarter today by far than I was during those early years.

The benefit I see is an ageless life to be. Twenty-five is a wonderful age and I’ve enjoyed that position for the past fifty-five years and will continue to do so until my end. We do not grow old, not I nor you. Our bodies age and we do ourselves a disservice by equating the state of our body with the state of our mind. Yet, even in writing this, I know that I still view older citizens as being much older than my twenty-five-year-old virtual self. It is only when I speak to an older citizen that I discover the twenty-five-year-old who resides within. A discovery of pearls.

I see my life as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ lovely poem, The One-Hoss Shay, the story of a shay that lasted 100 years and collapsed all at once. And that will be my end: At some point, my body will finally break and, at that moment, my twenty-five-year-old brain will suddenly cease. I will not break down, I will not age, I will not grow old. I will cease.

The Final Act

Have you ever typed the word suicide into a search engine? The first content you see will be information on reaching help, such as an 800 number. The assumption is that you’re considering suicide and are seeking assistance to prevent that step. As a society, our immediate concern is that life is precious and to be preserved at all costs and that persons seeking to end life are somehow confused, sick, depressed, or otherwise unable to see the value in continuing life. But are we missing the message here?

Considering suicide, people fall into one of three categories (in my opinion). The first are those who are depressed and know they need help. These people benefit from various community outreach groups, 800 numbers, and other services to which they can seek advice. We, as a society, are somewhat successful here because the individual reaches out for help.

The second group comprises those who make the quick decision that death is preferable and to be immediately initiated. Helping these people is difficult, if only because their decision is made so quickly and they act almost immediately.

And there is the third group, those who decide to end their lives and take preparatory steps, such as preparing a will, to ease any pain or suffering from those to be left behind. These people may plan their suicide well in advance, seeing suicide as the solution to whatever issues are in their lives.

Regrettably, following their deaths we cannot regularly know to which group a person belonged, leaving us feeling we could have helped if only we had known more. Their demise causes distress among us the living, as their deaths are often the result of violent action, whether by gun or jumping from a height or by swinging from a rope. Their self-initiated death by violence hits to the very heart of our beliefs. We grieve for them because our belief structure tells us they died unnecessarily and just needed counseling to grasp that a better life was there for them.

My question is whether our grief is for their loss, or is it our inherent desire to impose our beliefs on others, or could it be our fear that we are them? By that, I mean we may not want to accept any validity to their actions because we are fearful of acknowledging that we also may be susceptible in the right situation to making the same final decision.

Possibly it is the finality of the act, often accomplished violently, that frightens us? Our actions imply that suicide is never desirable to anyone, but is always the act of persons who are not in full control of their actions. But can this be true? How can we know how other persons value their lives? Consider the military person who knowingly commits an act of bravery that will lead to his death. Consider also those members of the U.S. Secret Service who are prepared to put their lives in immediate danger to protect the life of the President. Such acts are done knowing they will cause one’s death, yet we accept these as honorable and heroic.

From this, we can infer that we judge the voluntary ending of one’s life by knowing the person’s reason. But is that our right to do? We believe suicide to be wrong, but we have no firm proof of that. If we look to the Bible, we find several instances of suicide, but never any moral judgment on the act. If we review history, we find that suicide was in many cases a viable act for an individual, yet we today would deny a person of what is their right.

True, we do allow euthanasia in limited situations, but even there our society insists that it be done by a medical professional and only to relieve a person from extended suffering near the end of life. Is that our responsibility? Do we have that authority? Persons wishing to end their lives must seek approval? Possibly, just possibly, we are injecting our beliefs into the decisions of others beyond our authority, decisions that affect only them and not us.

For comparison, let’s review society’s view of homosexuality just a few decades ago. Such persons were not only considered ‘bad’, but also suffering from a sexual preference that could be ‘unlearned’ by focused education and workshops. That prejudicial attitude kept the gay community in hiding and often abused and mistreated. Although it has taken a long time, our society now finally sees the gay community as sharing similar views on morals and ethics as does the heterosexual community, being only different in their sexual preferences. In hindsight, one can only wonder “What took us so long for something this simple?”

Accepting suicide as an individual’s right may never be the norm, but it may also evolve as we continue to confront our beliefs and assumptions on what is, and is not, proper. A sign that we have begun to accept this final act will be an increase in open discussion on this topic and on the individual’s ability to end his/her life in non-violent ways and without needing approval and participation by a medical professional—and without guilt being placed upon the person by others, but a genuine acceptance and support.

That would be a new world and I have no idea on its success or failure. Would the acceptance of suicide as a normal act in any way change our view on the act of ending the lives of others? That is, would we put less value on all life? Can we accept that people can take their own life but not that of others? Would we become confused on life itself? Is it possible to learn to respect that the value of one’s life can only be determined by the individual? Or is this cliff too steep to climb?