Ten years ago I was sitting on a grassy hill, over looking 9th St. Park, here in Bloomington. Beside me was an old friend, and we sat and talked about this and that. At some point he confessed that he thought we, as a culture, and a people of the world, might live forever. I remember feeling kind of irritated, and confused by this, but also somewhat compassionate.
I could understand how anyone would desire such a thing. The art I had seen my whole life has depicted such a yearning. The science fiction I had read (including the Old Testament of the Bible, no joke) had enjoyed the fantasy of extremely long lived beings. Many movies, stories, and mythologies dealt with vaguely fantastic God like ancients, inevitably making a mess of their endless largess... as writers of the books I read on writing narrative would have it, "rarely is it a good idea, in a story, to give the protagonist the appearance of having satisfied his or her desires." Unless, of course, it's at the beginning... after which, the fun begins in earnest.
Was ever a story told, where the character desires something.... then, bang, gets it? Of course... it's just that hardly anyone could find reason to read it. The techne of writing and reading (the learned effort, the hidden machinery of your mind, experience, and spirit) is in fact very costly. Costly to the individual to obtain... costly to the culture to earn (in schooling and the over arching social infrastructure)... costly in the basic economics of time management: cost/ benefit costly. The story that speaks to the character getting what they desire, without complication, is not a story at all, of course: it's an aphorism. Could a fable be constructed in such a manner? No. Grandma and Grandpa tell "stories" that they can only sell to their unconditionally loving family for the very good reason that they aren't stories at all: they are life lessons, with most of the true consequences of experience butchered carefully for ingestion. And we should be glad. Real stories, told well, cause discomfort and terror. Such stories are best left to the faceless devices that are presented to the seeker in all of us at the cinema, bookstore, and other purveyors of narrative. A lot of bad movies are intentionally bland conversation pieces, for the large majority of any society which is lonely, and nervous, and needs something to talk about that doesn't create confrontation, ect.
So, the God-like characters I read about and saw depicted in stories and narratives on my childhood landscape HAD to have problems, so as to avoid being mistaken for a grandparent (though some of them were that as well!) And, among the Greek and Roman myths, the simple satisfaction of earnest desires, can hardly be found. The same can be said about the plays of most cultures, the literature, the opera, and indeed the politics.
"Why can't the politicians just be good?" you sometimes hear people ask. After these paragraphs above I need not say more than the obvious fact that, this is a very nice question. The answer lies to its seeker, beneath a thick carpet of dust, a few yards away from the spanking clean computers donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, at your local library. To be fair... the computers have tons of answers as well, with very diverting pictures of cleavage, undyingly clickable right next to the mostly earnest fare of your disposition. In any case, the answer is old, and bloody obvious, should you know the purpose of a politician, the power of narrative, and the ultimate willingness on your part to meddle in what is sometimes mistakenly presented as your representation. It's the politicians fault, of course.
It's probably true, as these old stories (or one might say, reminders) seem to obsess over, that there is something riveting about having all the problems you have today: forever. Who wouldn't want to wonder when the current war will end, for centuries? Who wouldn't want to change their mind so many times over that they stop even relating to themselves? Surely such a thing should only happen once, or twice in a life!
As the hilarious, and more than a little intelligent "film reviewer" Chrissreviews, put it, in her YouTube review of the Twilight New Moon sequel to the blockbuster series: (I paraphrase for fear of losing my attention by actually looking at this beautiful intelligent blond say these words again) "I mean, if I could live forever [as the vampires in Twilight do], wouldn't I want to spend the entire time in high school?" Of course you would... what else is there to do with life?
In some ways, depending on one's perspective (possibly, completely depending on one's perspective) we already live forever. By which I mean we have many years, as humans, before the responsibility of family obligation and childbirth to orient ourselves with the world, or universe. And, usually, we have some number of years beyond our family obligations to orient ourselves some more. Isn't it interesting how utopian that sounds? Surely, no one would be naive enough to really think that's how it works. Somehow, such a simple minded description of a life neglects the undeniable impacts of heavy involvement and attachment to the loved ones and places of our life. As long as we remain with, or are preparing for this attachment, we are far from the cosmic orientation that should be allowed from a merely technical perspective, to a lifespan of seventy to eighty years. It is both too bad and gloriously helpful that this is the case. Welcome to the humane riddle of humankind's largess.
So... it's settled. In a sense you kinda live forever, but can't practically appreciate (or enjoy) this, so really your lifespan is quite short, which everybody, who's anybody, knows only too well. Right? Your basic spiritual types, who are actually spiritual, versus the "of course I'm a spiritual" type of person (who, you know, needs a job, or kid, or whatever) will say that we all have more than enough time to address the truly important things. While this is undeniable, like, say, one's proper body weight, it has a lot in common with the same. Being told you should eat your vegetables is an unpleasant form of discourse. Besides, most folks (a hell of a metric, don't you think) do not agree. They want to go back, Our Town style. They want MORE time, not better time. This is due to the fact that youth is a time of extremely stupid behavior, and valorization. It's what...? Oh, yes.... Wasted. On. The. Young. While we wouldn't put our money on this statement, say, while playing with the grandkids, it is absolutely crucial to our dignity, should we reach back to the choices we have made. So... we can all agree, we didn't use the time we had properly, which leaves us in the unenviable position of admitting that yes, while we wish we had known better, we COULD use more time. It's not what you'd like to be saying... but there you go. Your old enough, now, for the truth (and man, you weren't back then, eh?)
So, back on that hill, at 9th St Park, with my friend, I hadn't really thought about a lot of this. For one thing, I was in my twenties, my early twenties. I knew I could yet make a lot of mistakes, and still get married to the wrong woman, and yet find a truer (though never, really, true) love, and some serenity. A number of wonderful friends of mine reveal this to me today. People who have lived; have loss that they lived through. This loss is instructive. Back at that park I had noticed a bit of this, but wasn't focused on it, even when the subject of life extension and immortality was brought up.
What I thought about at the time was: why don't we have a greater hunger for the lives being lived right now? The lives that have been lived already? The life we live today?
I didn't know, just then, the excuses and explanations that help to destroy all of that, and render the stone and grass graveyard so much less than even a pretension of it's categorical nomenclature. The deadest "memory" in the ugliest "garden" imaginable. And The History Channel says you were meant to picnic at the cemetery! It's the sort of fact that would appeal to a teen-ager who's lost no one. God bless 'em.
I whistle beside it all. And humbly miss my dead, kid.
And, I guess, in the language of my Southern Hoosier brethren, I hope you're long for the world.