Dead Wood… And Why Not?

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In a culture based on body worship being old is obviously unfashionable. On the other hand, in the same culture there’s much talk about life expectancy. Longevity is generally presented as a great achievement of a country, giving the impression that the highest life expectancy is in itself a trophy worth fighting for. Hence headlines such as “5 Places Where People Live the Longest and Healthiest Lives”; “Countries with the Highest Life Expectancy in 2018”; “In these countries, people live substantially longer than the worldwide average”. However, as everybody knows, rising life expectancy combined with rising loneliness and lack of purpose in life causes problems difficult to cope with, so much so that platforms, blogs and websites are full to the brim with hints such as “6 Things to Do When Dealing with Loneliness at an Old Age”, “Regular Cinema Trips Could Help Guard Against Depression in Old Age” or “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age”. At the other end of the spectrum we have “The Young Pay a Heavy Price for the Support Given to the Elderly” or “Elderly Could Bankrupt Welfare State”.

The headlines, as we have just said, inform that in Hong Kong you can live 7 months longer than in Italy, and in Spain 2 months longer than in Switzerland. There is, however, a site which says than it is actually Monaco that wins the Longevity World Cup with a little over 89 years of average lifespan. And yet, can a mother in Monaco whose 14-year-old son has just died of cancer be consoled by the fact that she has a good chance to live to be 90?  Moreover, statistics is about numerical data and thus it does not provide information on the real health condition or fitness of those octogenarian and nonagenarian champions. The idea, or rather impression, seems to be that they are as good as new, but anybody’s everyday experience contradicts this shiny optimism as indeed it’s entirely impossible to pretend one is a 90-year-old spring chicken.

It’s true that thousands of research centres work hard day and night to convince us it is, actually, attainable. The sophisticated but toxic pharmacological industry provides this constantly growing market with new poisons bearing respectable classical names, many of which are designed to boost one’s vital systems and stem cells so that for a while one can entertain the illusion of immortality. Gymnasiums offer special activities for senior citizens, but alas! Things are never clear: “Exercise could make dementia progression worse not better, study warns”, so be careful.

As regards the USA the Highest Life Expectancy Trophy went to Hawaii, which clocked in at 81.3 years. The lowest went to Mississippi, where life expectancy was only 74.7 years. The question is: “What is one going to do in Hawaii with the 8 years of lifespan more than that of a statistical Mississippian?” Apparently, one should keep pretending to be a 20-year-old and act accordingly.

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The lifespans we are given by statistics are artificial, or more precisely –artificially induced. If we lived as we’re supposed to live –naturally, most of us would live 60-70 years. We have already mentioned drugs enhancing our health or inhibiting our aging; to which we should add all imaginable kinds of painkillers; plus procedures which mitigate aging problems and promise immortality, almost, all of which together artificially lengthens our lives and, consequently, the statistical lifespan. The world has just been informed that Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, aged 75, had to postpone his and his band’s tour of Canada and the USA on account of a heart valve replacement procedure. According to Billboard, Jagger underwent a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) at a New York hospital. The procedure involved doctors accessing Jagger’s aortic valve via a catheter instead of opening his chest. Doctors went through Jagger’s femoral artery to reach the aortic valve, which pumps oxygenated blood from the heart out to the body. If this procedure didn’t exist, Jagger would be most probably dead.

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Make-up, false hair, fancy clothes. And this is the man who said “I’d rather be dead than singing “Satisfaction” when I’m forty-five”. Well, one remembers he also said “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing”. Good luck, buddy. Take your time, but think a lot… and fast.

The Prophet Muhammad informed us:

The lifespan of my ummah is between 60 and 70, and the fewest are those who surpass that. (SUNAN, Tirmidhi, Vol 6, Hadith 3550)

This might lead us to ponder the question of purpose of life in general and life of the elderly in particular. Mick Jagger, who has 360 million dollars, keeps singing at 75 for two reasons, neither of them good, but both of them strong: 1) greed; 2) he can’t think of anything else to do. As regards point (1), we know from another hadith of the prophet that “if the son of Adam had a valley of gold, he would want to have another valley of gold; and if he had two valleys of gold, he would want a third one.”  As regards point (2) we can only remind Mick Jagger of the following hadith:

A man shall be asked concerning five things on the Day of Resurrection: concerning his life, how he spent it; concerning his youth, how he grew old; concerning his wealth, how he acquired it and how he spent it; and what he did with the knowledge he had. (Tirmidhi)

It’ll be a great idea, Mick, to have the answers ready, and they’d better be the right ones.

In an article “Want To Enjoy Old Age? This 90-Year-Old Has One Simple Trick, And Science Backs Her Up” Jody Gastfriend mentions the experience of her mother, who is 90, which, she says, is a good example to follow. Jody admits that being 90 is not particularly enviable as far as she can judge, and even clearly admits her mum hasn’t been spared her share of problems:

She lost her life partner, my father, to dementia five years ago. She broke her femur twice and was homebound in a wheelchair for seven long months. She spent the first half of last year so sick from a chronic respiratory infection that she didn’t know whether she would make it to my son’s wedding. 

Yet, all those difficulties and setbacks were overcome, Jody affirms, and her mother is even more positive and disposed to look at the bright side than ever before:

The reason? One word: Gratitude. In short, my mom seems to have more of it than she ever did before. It’s a word we hear a lot this time of year, as we re-connect with our loved ones and celebrate our shared connections. But the act of giving thanks — of being profoundly grateful for life’s blessings— isn’t just about tradition: Science says it’s good for us too. A growing body of research finds that gratitude can have a lasting impact on health. It can boost the immune system, improve sleep and combat the negative effects of stress. When we think about what we appreciate, our body responds by increasing oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.  

Yet, it is a little sad that the only thing Jody’s mother worried about was the danger not living long enough to attend her grandson’s wedding. Furthermore, nowhere in the article do we find a word about how to be grateful or to whom to be grateful, but it’s true that there is someone we should, must and have to be grateful –this aspect of Mrs Gastfriend’s line of argument is correct.

The Prophet said:

Wonderful is the case of a believer –there is good for him in everything, and this is only for the believer. If he experiences a blessing, he is grateful to Allah –which is good for him; and if he experiences an adversity, he is patient –which is also good for him. (Related by Muslim from Shuhayb bin Sinan)

This is true of a believer only. It does not apply to abstract or “traditional” gratefulness. Jody Gastfriend eludes mentioning even in passing the word “God” and although she beats about the bush, sort of, she at the same time beats about the question of purpose of living –the first of the five things we shall be asked about in the Afterlife. We have been given life, something more precious than anything else we can think of and we shall be asked how we lived it. Mick Jagger, for example, will have to say that he rocked and rolled, and had fun and then more fun, until he turned 75 and had to have his heart valve replaced so that he could keep rocking and rolling. Most of us will have to say we, well… breathed, ate, drank, slept, had children and died. Not particularly impressive.

These days 70-year-olds are offered fantastic cruises around the world, all-night disco dancing included, mountain climbing or parachuting courses and similarly extravagant propositions. The idea is not only to make money on the fastest growing demographics. There is also a strong ideological purpose –that of supporting the materialistic system of values. Getting old is a scandal because it reminds us of death and death does away with all our expectations for enjoyment of paradise in this world. All our dreams and false objectives crash inevitably against the wall of death since it deprives our existence of all meaning. Why have we come to this world if 70 or 80 years later, in the best of cases, we are to be converted into dust and bones? Can anyone truly from the heart accept that the whole universe, so finely tuned, originated so that some of us could play rock and roll, others could transplant hearts or manufacture furniture, still others could teach languages and have children who, just like them, are destined to die?  Obviously, nobody would be prepared to believe that such can be the real causes for our existence. We have on the authority of Ali ibn Abu Talib that “we shall die as we lived, and we shall resurrect as we died.” What a terrible end for those who take up surf in their old age!

(12) Verily We shall give life to the dead, and We record the deeds they sent forth and the imprints which they left behind, and of all things we have taken account in a clear book of evidence.

Qur-an 36 – Yasin

 Our deeds, both good and bad, reach Hereafter before us and will be brought to our account, but this account will also be influenced by the example we left behind us, in the life of this world, in the form of consequences of our deeds, which will continue to operate after our earthly life has ceased. The Arabic word أَثَر (athar; pl. آثار) translated here as imprint has in fact a wider meaning. It may also mean remains or remaining traces. Thus, our deeds, good and bad, have for us consequences which in the Hereafter will transform into rewards or punishments, but at the same time they will also leave traces behind us, positive or negative, even after we have departed from this world. This brings us to the question of the nature of such deeds; what deeds can be called good or bad. The answer is to be found in the following verses:

Then the one whose actions will weigh heavy on the Balance will live a life full of satisfaction. And the one whose actions will weigh light on the Balance will have the abyss for dwelling. And what will explain to you what this is. It is a fire blazing fiercely.

Qur-an 101– al Qariya

The question of whether singing rock and roll will weigh heavily or lightly on the scales of the Balance should be answered individually by each human being since everything, as regards the Hereafter, depends on it. However, in order to be on the safe side it’s highly advisable to find out everything about the nature of the deeds that can be called weighty or light, and no source is better for that than the Qur-an –the last revelation received by mankind, valid until the Day of Final Judgment.

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