Aging Gracefully?

I turned sixty in October, and it was a wonderful milestone birthday. It also got me thinking about getting older, accomplishments, physical aches and pains and what it means to live a good life for the long run. Milestones, whether birthdays, marriages, graduation, getting a new job or anything else that marks the arrival at a certain signpost in life, tend to make us ponder.

I once listened to a podcast called The Truth. The title of one episode was Machine Men, and it was a real pleasure to listen to. It was blended truth and fiction, dealing with the need or the desire to make our physical bodies better than they are. The website’s own description of the episode was this:

“We hear passages from the novel Machine Man by Max Barry, about a man who slowly transforms himself, body part by body part, into a machine. And then we’ll meet a real life amputee, an MIT professor named Hugh Herr, who is building mechanical body parts for real.”

I also listened to a book from called Amped. This audiobook also dealt with humans developing the technology to make themselves smarter, faster, healthier, stronger and potentially more dangerous via the use of tiny machines placed in the brain. I won’t spoil the listen for you, but suffice it to say that when some of us start to act and look different than others of us, and a tiny physical signpost on one’s temple marks one as an “amp”, trouble is bound to ensue.

This podcast episode and this audiobook really started to make me think more about our physical selves. How do we age naturally, even if we are in the best of health our entire life? What happens if we are severely injured, leading to loss of a limb or blindness or deafness or some other calamity? What happens if we develop a disease that doesn’t kill us, but slows us down and keeps us in pain most of the time? Many of you have experienced life changing accidents and illnesses that have altered your lives forever.

I myself developed acute polymyalgia rheumatica a few years ago, and it has taught me a lot about what chronic, subclinical pain feels like and how it impacts my daily functioning. Although my acute episode has long since passed and I no longer depend on low dose steroids to keep me moving, I once had days that it was hard to get out of bed, days when the aching in my shoulders made it hard to take off my own shirt, and times that my relatively sedentary day job made my hips and back so stiff that I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.

All of which leads me to several other questions and thoughts, which I’d like you to think about.

Is the normal progression of aging that we must all endure really normal, and is it to be tolerated with grace and patience? Do toleration, suffering, and perseverance make us better people?

When we are afflicted with disease or impairment, do we seek palliative treatment and soldier on, chalking this up to our lot in life, or do we seek to completely eradicate the malady if the treatment and technology exist to do so?

If we are not happy with how we look, do we seek out ways to bring back our youthful appearance, or do we proudly wear laugh lines and gray hair and other signs of age and experience like badges of honor?

If, in our lifetime, technology exists to make us stronger, faster, or better physically than perhaps we ever were before (listen to Hugh Herr talk about his climbing abilities before and after learning to use his prostheses), should we do everything we can, spare no expense, to procure them?

Finally, more philosophically, is suffering something that man must endure? Does he see his place in the biological world and seize it proudly, building on it within the natural course of evolution and environmental change? Or, does he “slowly transform himself, body part by body part, into a machine“.

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