The meaning of Life, Aging & The Final Death

What is life? This is a question asked by philosophers, scientists and most every human wandering this planet. To this day, we cannot all agree on what life is, what constitutes it, or what it means. Science tells us that the characteristics which define life, what is living or not living, include being composed of cells, displaying some level of organization, using energy, being capable of reproduction, and being able to grow and development. Of course, not everyone agrees with this definition. Life is one of those few topics, it seems, that we have trouble quantifying or understanding. We just can’t seem to wrap our heads around it. We cannot agree on when life began or how it began. Below, you’ll find a few different opinions.

We argue over when life begins, when life becomes valuable and just how valuable it is. It seems that not only are we incapable of agreeing on life in general, we are equally as incapable of allowing others to have individual views on the matter. Humans have a herd mentality, we are more animal than we might like to think, we’ve really not progressed very far at all in some ways. We’re looking to fit in or to make those different from us fit into the neat little boxes that make us comfortable, but that’s just the problem, those neat little boxes are only comfortable to specific individuals. The saying, “You can’t please everyone” comes to mind.

Life is individual, it is unique in both experiences and perspective. Orson Wells said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone”. I tend to agree. No one thinks exactly as you do, no one shares every single experience, no one shares the exact same perspective or perceives things in the exact same way. We are alone, living as unique creatures necessitates that we be alone in this way, we are alone in our thoughts and our minds. How varied we are, it boggles the mind.

We struggle throughout our lives to be unique and independent, while walking the tightrope line of wanting to fit in. Every year, people commit suicide because they did not feel like they fit in, they were too unique and felt unconnected. We are a strange species seeking a strange balance on high and precarious rocks.

We often confuse the meaning of life with being what we want or desire to be happy and fulfilled or simply to get through another day. The meaning of life is simple, to reproduce and to survive, not only in our generation but for the generations after us; but that alone will not bring each of us happiness or fulfillment, we are a greedy lot. We want more. As a species, we tend to want to see ourselves as greater than other living things, to have some greater meaning in existence, some greater role. It would not do to be mere animals.

“Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us. When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs, as Slovic found in one of his studies, we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.”

Eula Biss

Though happiness may not be the meaning of life, it is a goal in life, to be certain. Existence alone is not enough, not for any of us. Our uniqueness brings with it complications, for we each require different things in order to be happy or to feel fulfilled. A life worth living is as unique in its makeup as we are as individuals. What brings happiness to one, brings misery to another and this is the challenge to medical professions.

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?” 

Atul Gawande

Multiple studies have shown that happiness, satisfaction or a will to live affect our bodies very ability to live. Some patients die of minor illnesses or injuries without explanation while others seem able to survive anything life can throw at them. Deeprak Chopra says “First of all, thinking is “real” medicine, as proven by the placebo effect. When given a sugar pill in place of a prescription drug, an average of 30% of subjects will show a positive response. What causes this response isn’t a physical substance but the activity of the mind-body connection. Expectations are powerful. If you think you’ve been given a drug that will make you better, often that is enough to make you better.”

Medical professionals must come to recognize that health encompasses more than just the meaning of life, the definition of life, or what it takes to sustain life physically. The greatest part of us is within our minds, this is what makes us who we are and the health of our body holds little meaning without the health of our mind, without happiness and a will to go on. As we age, this only becomes more important. We, as future health professionals, must understand how to care for each person individually, not as another body, but as a whole and connected person. Care must become highly individualized. I’m sure that there will be some struggle along this path, learning how to exchange the current conveyer belts in our hospitals and our care facilities for truly compassionate and more human care, but it is worth the trouble when you realize that one day you too will become sick or old and will suffer whatever services you leave in place or benefit from whatever changes are made.

It’s time to focus less on the meaning of life and more on its fulfillment.

I define the “meaning” as the purpose, which is ultimately the same. We need a new word to summarize what we commonly call “meaning”, which encompasses far too much to put under the same heading as the purpose of life, which is the same for all living organisms. From this point on, meaning shall be purpose or function and fulfillment will be what is commonly called “meaning” but is not linked to purpose or function.

Aging is the process of wilting, desiccation, the failure to produce certain things or to create new things that are required for the body to survive. I like to refer to it as the wilting and drying “disease”. When I say this, I’m not stating that it is a disease, as diseases are quite different, I mean only that it is a destructive process that can be seen much like a disease. I believe that it can be slowed or even halted with the right research. The meaning of aging is breaking down physically, which sometimes includes breaking down mentally, after all our brains are physical organs.

This is what medical professionals tend to look at when looking at caring for aging patients. They look at the body’s breakdown, it’s inability to create or to produce, it’s physical being and the safety or the physical health of the patient. They make decisions based on these things, usually without care for how the patient feels or what the patient wants. They define needs and health as primarily physical and seek to do what they can to maintain the physical body of the patient regardless of cost to happiness or to the “self” of the patient, which is not physical.

“A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” Atul Gawande

The thinking of medical professionals, that people uneducated in medicine cannot make good informed choices for themselves about what is best for them, is understandable. That being said, it is also wrong. They may not understand the specific effects or fore coming challenges of a decision that they might make in order to be happy, but with advice from a medical professional, they can minimize the risks while retaining a reason to live. Living alone, is not enough as we age and face the ever looming death we know is coming. At this point, our priorities change and we can prefer a small physical risk to the loss of fulfillment.

“idea that you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you feel about it. Or, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” 

Eula Biss

Why do our priorities change? Perhaps it is the lack of time left, what once seemed to stretch on for eternity now has a definite and foreseeable end. Perhaps, this makes us fear more while making us fear the things we use to fear less. Death becomes inevitable and foreseeable, making it somewhat less scary. How we spend the time that we have left becomes all more important and wasting that time, all the more frightening. You see, the self within us, that which is us can no longer easily take a back seat to the preferences of others or being politically correct or accepted. Finally, we must be ourselves while we still can, an importance is placed on self, where before it might have been placed on others. It’s not that family and friends are less important, as they are more important than ever, but it is that those outside of this circle are less important to us. Being rich or influential, powerful are less important. We won’t be taking those things with us in death and as we age, though they are important to some extent in what we might leave behind, they are less important to spend what little time we have on. We seek greater, more important pursuits, like leaving or gaining memories that we can hold dear. Self-sufficiency and independence takes a greater importance to us as aging individuals. Sadly, in current times, our families need us and appreciate us more when we are strong and vital and less so when we become frail and aged. The role that the elderly once held as a source of wisdom and a venerated respect of that wisdom and knowledge gained is now accorded to the internet.

Doing no harm must include doing to harm to the “self” of the person that you are caring for and to do that, we must take into account what is important to them. We must not, in our mission to keep them alive and well, leave them unsatisfied; stripping them of every vestige of self-sufficiency and control until they are safe and swaddled but entirely unfulfilled. We are, in essence, taking their will to live.  We often fail to see ourselves in their situations and question how we might feel or what we ourselves might really require in order to have a life worth living.

As I age, at only 41 (which is a mere 41 as compared to 80 or 90), I find that already my priorities are changing. The world around me is ever changing and what was important yesterday, no longer holds such meaning today. As I contemplate what aging means for me and wonder at what might become harder tomorrow, I am troubled. I worry that the things I love to do might become impossible. The children who needed me constantly and looked upon me with great respect, waiting on the edge of their seats for advice, now look it up on the internet and if I should disagree with the answer they have found, I am already considered old and “” not with the times”. I do not think that they, in their youth, understand that the internet does not age or learn from its errors. It is a machine. I, a human, have had 41 years to make a multitude of mistakes and to learn from them. I am, perhaps, a greater source of information than the internet on some subjects due to personal experience.

I find myself remembering the things that I put aside to focus on my family, I long to do these things now and find myself moving back towards accomplishing them. My family is incredibly important to me, but so too is what I truly want and desire, what I need to be fulfilled and happy. I will be reentering training for offense, defense and MMA style fighting. I am changing my diet, my focus and no longer care to have a huge number of friends. My priorities are changing, evolving. I can see that those 40 or 50 years ahead of me have been where I am now and wonder at what I will feel when I can no longer train, when I can no longer learn as easily as I do now, I wonder at what things I will run out of time to do and to experience.

I think that this fact, that I am 41, might make it easier for me to be more understanding of the elderly, but too, it makes me more easily frustrated by them. They are a reminder of what is to come, a visual representation of my concerns as I age and my reactions to them are a reminder of how I might be seen by others. I think this is why some health care providers try to shy away from all but medical care and get the elderly out as fast as possible without truly thinking on what they want and need. I think, perhaps, we see ourselves in the years to come and must learn to overcome our own fears to provide proper care that encompasses them as a whole, mind and body (happiness and health). After all, we will reap what we sow, whether we try to ignore or forget it or not, unless we defeat aging as a whole. Someday, it will be us and we will hope for a better level of care and a better level of life, just as they do.