philosophy is for everyone
philosophers should know lots
Opsigeria: A Blessing or a Curse?
by Max Malikow
'If only the picture could change and I could always be what I am now. I would give everything; yes, there's nothing in the whole world I would not give. I'd give my soul for that.'
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
'I grow old, I grow old...'
T.S. Eliot, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'
Progeria is a rare genetic disease manifesting in dramatic premature aging. The term is the result of the combination of the Greek words for 'before' (pro) and 'old age' (geria). Currently (2008), there are fifty-one known cases in the world (Progeria, 2007). Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease that declares itself by the second year of life and ends in death at approximately age fourteen. Death is caused by heart attack or stroke. The rate of aging for someone with progeria is six to eight times faster than normal, with the full constellation of physical symptoms characteristic of the elderly, including appearance. There is no intellectual impairment with this disease. Progeria occurs in two forms, with the better known syndrome (Hutchinson-Guilford Disease) the early onset expression. The lesser known form (Werner's Syndrome) appears at puberty, with death occurring between twenty and thirty years of age.
The previous paragraph notwithstanding, this essay is not a medical treatise on progeria, but a philosophical piece concerning this disease's nonexistent antithesis: opsigeria. Specifically, the purpose of this meditation is to contemplate the meaning of life from an unusual perspective: in the context of an imaginary life. Immanuel Kant reduced the study of philosophy to four questions, one of which is: How should we live? (Katen, 1973, p. 91). The question pursued in this essay is: Would a life of 450 years be a blessing or a curse? A life of such length would be six times the normal life expectancy, the mirror opposite of progeria. The medical term for a life of such length would be opsigeria, derived from combining the Greek word for 'delayed' or 'retarded' (opsi) with the aforementioned geria.
Of the six subcategories of philosophical study, two that are relevant to the question under consideration are ethics and value theory. The former is concerned with how a life of such extraordinary length ought to be lived. (Would the recipient of an opsigeric life have any unique obligations?) The latter is concerned with the factors that determine the worth of something. The value theory question associated with opsigeria is: Would a life of four-and-a-half centuries be desirable perhaps so desirable that it would be purchased at great cost if it were possible?
The topic of longevity has a history in both science and literature. Geriatricians have maintained a research interest in men and women who have lived to 110 years and beyond. Referred to as supercentarians, the eldest of the elderly is French woman Jean Calment, who died in 1997 at age 122 (Myers, 2007, p. 178). Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the story of a Faustian bargain in which an exceedingly handsome young man is able to have his portrait age while he retains his youth. Colleen McCullough's best-seller, The Thornbirds, includes an elderly Mary Carson's bold declaration of love for Father de Bricassart, a Catholic priest who is half her age:
'I have loved you,' she said pathetically.
Myth and history have combined to immortalize (no pun intended) the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leone (1460-1521), who sought the legendary Fountain of Youth. In various treatments of longevity and perpetual youth, it is granted that delayed aging is something to be pursued. In the United States, the current interest in cosmetic procedures is well documented in medical literature. The implied benefit of unremitting youth is present in the Genesis narrative, in which Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden and denied access to the Tree of Life, thereby initiating the ticking of their biological clocks (3:1-3, 22-23).
In what follows, it is not assumed that opsigeria would be a benefit. Rather, it is discussed in terms of its positive and negative possibilities, inviting readers to draw their own conclusion. This essay consists of a three-part sequence. First, three open questions are posed to provide a background for a discussion of opsigeria. Second, the possibilities that would make opsigeria a blessing as well as a curse are presented. Third, since the favorability of an opsigeric's life would depend upon certain conditions, several contingencies are considered.
There are at least three questions that are relevant to a discussion of opsigeria that are worth posing, even if they cannot be answered. The purpose of these open questions is to provide a background for considering: Since progeria is tragic does it necessarily follow that opsigeria would be wonderful?
1. Is it possible for a life to be wasted?
Is it possible for a life to be wasted? Neither a life nor anything else can be wasted unless an intended purpose is known. In other words, it can be said that people are wasting their lives only when they ought to be devoting themselves to one thing but are doing another. The question of whether or not a life can be wasted is relevant to opsigeria because more time to accomplish something might be an asset if there is something that ought to be accomplished. If someone's life has no known purpose then its length is a matter of indifference.
Is it necessary for death to be imminent if someone is going to concentrate on those things that are truly important? Samuel Johnson wrote: 'Depend upon it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully' (Johnson, 2007). Is the awareness of death necessary for focusing one's mind on what is truly important? If so, then a life in which death will not be imminent until four centuries have passed would be a hindrance to the wonderful concentration of which Johnson spoke.
Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl advocated using death to one's advantage. He wrote that life's three unfortunate inevitabilities are pain, guilt, and death and reasoned that since they are unavoidable, each should be used to enrich life. Concerning death, rather than lamenting the brevity of life, Frankl taught that one should use death to resolve to get the most out of life. He encouraged living with deliberation and determination; thinking about how to use time optimally and acting accordingly (1959, p. 162). Could it be that the resolve recommended by Frankl would be impossible without the shadow of death?
Would a life that spans over four centuries continue to hold interest for the one living it? In the Hebrew Bible the idiom 'old and full of years' (e.g. Job 42:17) is used to describe an elderly person's condition at the time of impending death. The proper translation of this idiom is, 'having experienced all that life has to offer.' Granted, even a life of 450 years would be insufficient to allow for every conceivable activity, emotion, and thought. Nevertheless, would there be enough diversity of experience to make life interesting for an opsigeric?
The Assets and Liabilities of Opsigeria
The Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908. Clearly, opsigeria would be an advantage for the baseball fan longing to see the Cubs win a world championship. (It might even prove to be a necessity.) What other advantages might there be for an opsigeric?
In stark contrast to the abbreviated life of a child with progeria, a 450 year life span would provide enough time to consider and take innumerable opportunities. An opsigeric would have enough time to be educated and develop skills for several careers. The diversity of careers could range from altruistic human service to egoistic wealth accumulation and indulgence. (The accumulation of wealth would be enhanced by two or three additional centuries of interest on investments). Numerous long-term projects could be exceedingly long-term. World travel could be extensive with so much time to engage in it. Rarely would an opsigeric be troubled by waiting in a long line and speeding tickets should be infrequent. (How often would someone with such a long life be in a hurry?) In summary, an opsigeric would have time to try virtually everything imaginable and all that could be orchestrated into a life.
At first blush, it might seem that there would be no disadvantages to opsigeria. If there are no benefits associated with progeria, would it not logically follow that there would be no disadvantages connected with opsigeria? Psychiatrist Irving Yalom has posited that living with the awareness of death is a current that runs beneath the surface of all psychotherapy (1989, p. 5). If he is correct, an appealing inference is that delayed aging would be an unadulterated blessing. However, on closer examination, there are several undesirable possibilities for an opsigeric.
Living six times longer than everyone else would include outliving one's children and spouse (or spouses). The death of a child is unspeakably painful. Imagine a life punctuated by burying one son or daughter after another. Further, imagine watching a spouse grow old without providing companionship as an equally aging partner. Fidelity to a much 'older' spouse would require considerable self-discipline, especially if sexual intimacy is a priority for the opsigeric. How could there not be a strain on such a marriage? How many marriages and children would an opsigeric choose to have, knowing that numerous funerals of loved ones are inevitable?
Shakespeare's Macbeth described his life with these words: 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time' (Act V. Scene 5). King Solomon offered a similar reflection:
All things are wearisome,
Solomon lived less than one hundred years, yet spoke of the tedium of life. He reached his morose conclusion in spite of immeasurable wealth, which he did not spare in his pursuit of pleasure. If Solomon were the only one whose great wealth did not provide happiness then he could be seen as an anomaly. However, this is not the case. Research shows that after the euphoria of winning millions of dollars, lottery winners have reported that they are no happier than the general population (Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman, 1978). If a life of less than one-hundred years can become tedious, this does not bode well for the opsigeric.
In addition to ennui, an opsigeric might be vulnerable to a depression driven by survivor guilt. Survivors of traumatic events in which most people were killed have reported feeling guilty in spite of their good fortune (Matsakis, 1999). Some survivors of wars, airplane crashes, automobile accidents, and the Holocaust have felt a burden of obligation. Having lived through an event that caused the deaths of many, these survivors feel a duty to make their lives really count for something. This sense of duty can be stressful. Perhaps the beneficiary of a four-hundred year life would bear an immense burden of obligation as the recipient of this unique gift.
Further, with such an extended life would come prolonged existence as an elderly person. Eventually, even an opsigeric would reach old age; having the body of a seventy year-old at age 420. The deterioration that normally culminates in death five or ten years after seventy would take six times longer. Would it be a blessing to be failing in health over a period of thirty to sixty years?
Quaker philosopher David Elton Trueblood wrote:
Each of us is bound to die, and every rational person is highly conscious that his life is short, but there need be no tragedy in this. It is surely not so bad to die, providing one has really lived before he dies. Life need not be long to be good, for indeed it cannot be long. The tragedy is not that all die, but that so many fail to really live.
(1951, p. 164).
Trueblood's observation that longevity is not a prerequisite to a satisfying life is shared by Stephen Vincent Benet: 'Life is not lost by dying! Life is lost moment by moment, day by dragging day, in all the thousand, small, uncaring ways' (1942).
Whether or not opsigeria would be a benefit would depend on the life conditions created by events, circumstances, and personality. Consider the contingency of good health. Three or four centuries of good health in a fully functioning body would be favorable. However, since opsigeria would not provide an exemption from accident or disease, an equal number of years in an afflicted body has little appeal. Living in a prolonged state as a quadriplegic or burn victim or with an advanced case of multiple sclerosis might make the sufferer wish for a shorter, rather than longer, life.
Another variable that would influence the quality of life is where 450 years would be lived. More than one religion proclaims eternal life in heaven as the ultimate reward for the faithful. Eternity in heaven is one thing; a very long life on earth is quite another. The biblical account describes Adam and Eve losing both eternal life and their residency in Eden (Genesis 3:23-24). Could it be that one without the other would be a miserable existence? Consider the implications of either growing old in paradise or remaining young on a continuously deteriorating earth. Granted, some parts of the world are better than others. But what if 450 years are lived out in a place plagued with disease, deprivation, or unremitting war? Also, as previously stated, great wealth does not insure a joyful life; but neither does poverty. A life in which one has insufficient resources for the provision of basic necessities is a gloomy prospect indeed.
H.L. Mencken wrote; 'The older I grow the more I distrust the famous doctrine that age brings wisdom' (Price, 2004, p. 28). Mencken is correct in his observation that life experience alone is insufficient for wisdom. Wisdom comes with age only if it is accompanied by reflection on how the years have been spent and the beliefs that have guided that spending. Soren Kierkegaard postulated that, 'Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards' (Price, 2004, p. 2). It is credible that knowledge of how life ought to be lived mixed with how life has been lived is the formula for maximizing one's life. If an incremental growth in wisdom is a prerequisite for getting the most out of a 450 year life, this would require the opsigeric to be curious and reflective. Lacking these qualities, the opsigeric would grow older, but not wiser. Without wisdom, a life of such length might degenerate into a dull existence.
The tragedy of a child with progeria is relative, not absolute. It is not the child's aging, per se, that is calamitous, but aging at a rate that is different from virtually everybody else. In like manner, almost all of the undesirable possibilities that could flow from opsigeria would result from aging out of synchrony with everybody else.
Personality is defined as, 'an individual's characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting' (Myers, 2007, p. 595). Previously noted is Trueblood's observation that, 'Life need not be long to be good' (1951, p. 164). If he is correct, then how a person lives has more influence on the quality of life than how long that person lives. How a person lives is largely determined by that individual's personality. An Italian proverb teaches, 'Quando una persona fu nato rotondo, no puo morire quadrato.' ('When a person is born round, he cannot die square.') A life in which birth and death are separated by over four centuries might not be appreciably different from a shorter version of that same life.
It is conceivable, if not likely, that an opsigeric's life would be essentially a sixfold extension of that same life lived over seventy-five years. This possibility suggests that people who lack self-discipline and certain inclinations would never get around to reading the classics, losing weight, exercising, or learning to play the piano. How much weight would an undisciplined opsigeric gain? How much debt would a foolhardy opsigeric accumulate? What would a life-sentence mean to a psychopathic opsigeric? (Regarding crime and punishment, an interesting hypothetical question is: Would you be willing to commit a lucrative crime that might result in a twenty-year imprisonment if the proceeds from the crime would set you up for life?)
If personality exerts the greatest influence on a life then some people could live blissfully for 450 years; others would multiply their misery; many would live nondescript lives; and still others would obsess interminably over what to do with so much time.
Benet, S. (1942). 'A Child Is Born.' We Stand United and Other Radio Scripts. New York: Rinehart and Co.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). 'Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(8): 917-927.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press.
Johnson, S. Recovered from http://www.quotationspage.com.org on 02/06/08.
Katen, T. (1973). Doing Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Matsakis, A. (1999). Survivor Guilt. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publication.
McCullough, C. (1977). The Thornbirds. New York: Avon Books.
Myers, D. (2007). Psychology (eighth edition). New York: Worth Publishers.
Price, S. (2004). The 1001 Smartest Things Ever Said. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
Progeria. Recovered from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progeria on 12/26/07.
Shakespeare, W. (circa 1603). Macbeth. 5.5.18.
Trueblood, D. (1951). The Life We Prize. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Yalom, I. (1989). Love's Executioner: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
© Max Malikow 2008
Biographical note: The author is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Rene Crown Honors Program of Syracuse University and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Le Moyne College. His books include It's Not Too Late: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, Suicidal Thoughts: Essays on Self-Determined Death, Profiles in Character: Twenty-six Stories that Will Instruct and Inspire Teenagers, and Philosophy 101: A Primer for the Apathetic or Struggling Student. In addition, he is a psychotherapist in private practice in Syracuse, New York.