I will be 78 next month. Although the advance of aging differs considerably from person to person, I now consider myself to be “old”. How does it feel to be old? For me, it’s not at all pleasant. Every day, instead of discovering new abilities and new things in the world, I discover what it is that I am no longer capable of. The world of possibilities shrinks around me.
Is it possible to reconcile oneself to this? Well … it is. But it requires that one identifies completely with the fundamental purpose of life. And what is that fundamental purpose? All living things share one and only one purpose, and that purpose is to prolong one’s life to the point that you have passed your genetic material into offspring. An ancillary purpose that one sees in some organisms (like us) is to provide support to those offspring and, if possible, their offspring. That’s it. The purpose of life is the continuation of itself. There is no “higher” purpose.
How did this come to be? In an otherwise purposeless universe, a particular organization of matter appeared that was somehow capable of maintaining itself against the forces of disorganization. It persisted. And the subsequent evolution of life is the story of how new forms of persistence (i.e. species) appeared over time, leading right up to this moment. The key innovation of evolution was, of course, reproduction – the placing of your genetic material into new vehicles.
That’s the broad view. Back to the narrow concerns of individuals. We humans, along with all other organisms, are driven to reproduce. We approach sexual maturity and become horny. We fall in love … or just have sex. Whether by choice or not, we have children. Some of us put more, and some less, effort into rearing those children. Some of us even contribute to the support of our childrens’ children. No matter how exactly one pursues the path of reproduction, reproduction remains the sole purpose of life.
I have fathered a child, which child has fathered three children, and those three children have now gained sexual maturity. I find, therefore, that my job is almost over. My sole remaining duty is to assist my wife in contributing to the well-being of her child and grandchildren, although they are not related to me. Now, supporting my wife’s reproductive success is the greatest service I can provide to her, as she provided to me. My job will truly be done when those children make it safely to sexual maturity (well … there’s just one more thing I will need to do. I will need soon to get out of the way of my descendants, by ending the expenditure of family resources tied up in keeping me alive. I will need to die. And, of course, my dying has begun, as the aging process renders me increasingly more vulnerable to accident and disease. Aging is an invitation to dying.)
Does this way of looking at things then reconcile me to aging and the approach of death? Well … if it doesn’t, nothing else will. No worldly thing can substitute for it. And what of those who have remained childless? They have the opportunity to assist their siblings, with whom they share genes. They can be loving and loved aunts and uncles, and improve the odds in favor of their nieces and nephews. And of those childless individuals who lack relations? They can, as a friend pointed out, be of service to the family of humanity and our only home, the Earth.
So, am I reconciled? I am reconciled and will complain no more.