It should come as no surprise that Baby Boomers are starting to reflect upon their mortality. After all, as 77-year-old Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in her recent book, Natural Causes, we are now judged “old enough to die.” Rapidly approaching the Biblical three-score-and-ten myself, I recognize that no special causes would be invoked to explain my demise, except for the fact that I belong to a generation that is used to having control over many life events. Given the choice, I would defer. While I am luckier than most human inhabitants of the planet, in all times and places, with regard to longevity, I still wish to associate myself with Woody Allen’s famous complaint: “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” Good news for Woody and the rest of us who have been fortunate enough to get this far–there’s a chance that you were never really here to begin with.
In the long perspective (which it behooves every Boomer to adopt), the concept of the “self” is arguably a Western invention from the period since 1700 or so. Ehrenreich follows many scholars in pointing to the advent of a culture of personal, inward examination during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Not only did people of means (*) produce a growing number of autobiographical “ego-documents,” diaries, journals, and the like, but these records of their personal experience and reflection were often published. They also took care to cultivate a certain image of “the self,” disclosing their actions and thoughts in the context of their society’s expectations and standards. Even the demands of Christianity shifted, as the Protestant Reformation ushered in intense introspection, focused on scrutiny of one’s personal relationship with God as contrasted with one’s conformity to the requirements of the Church. Whether or not this habit is uniquely Western and modern–and it’s impossible to be sure, since other examples might simply not have survived–the point is that contemporary middle-class folks often have the leisure and inclination to pursue their highest ideal of individual well-being. Surely health and long life rate right up there.
(* By the way, all of this relates to the world as seen by me, a cisgender, heterosexual, married male who enjoys above average income. For further clues to ethnic identity, see the map on “Boomer’s Lament” home page.)
Indeed, for many prosperous Boomers, at least in Ehrenreich’s view, this pursuit has become an obsession. She records her own enlistment in the army of regular exercise (and some of her astounding iron-pumping feats) as well as her determination to take charge of her own health, prompted by early encounters with the male-dominated medical profession. In her case, however, the quest has been complicated by her own scientific background. Not only is she a PhD biologist, but she continues to stay abreast of professional literature in many related fields. In her current book, she traces the course of her own “disenchantment,” which has taken just the opposite turn from what that implies when attached to the Enlightenment. Instead of eschewing “magic” in favor of strictly empirical “rationality,” she suggests that “the notion of nature as a passive, ultimately inert mechanism…was the mistake.” (p. 160) For too long, she asserts, scientific medicine and its capitalist allies have focused on the attempt to control the body, in the belief that it operates according to a scheme of harmony and wholeness. Our entire culture seeks to postpone inevitable death instead of prolonging real life. For her, awakening takes the form of rejecting further “preventative” care–she is a breast cancer survivor–along with all the rituals of wellness, from Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month to lifestyle coaching.
At one level, Ehrenreich, like many a Boomer, is becoming a curmudgeon. She is engaging in a long, somewhat critical look at her own career–the book is dedicated to her graduate thesis advisor–and taking stock of how the world has changed during her lifetime. This is not a uniformly joyful process. But intertwined with this retrospective survey is a serious argument: that science and statistics themselves are showing us a different way to think about human nature and thus the destiny of the entire species. Recent research seems to indicate that, instead of being an evolutionary marvel that occasionally gets out of whack, the individual human body is better imagined as a “battleground” among contending, often random elements, executing “decisions” to further their own obscure interests. For Ehrenreich, Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” has been joined by the “treasonous cell”; her particular bete noire is the macrophage, ostensibly there to consume harmful intruders but in fact causing inflammation that abets cancer. In short, “the self that we love and nurture” does not exist, or at best it turns out to be “a fragile, untrustworthy thing.” As for the soul, which might survive mortal collapse, Ehrenreich dispatches it simply by recounting the futile historical search for it.
This Boomer reader wants to object that the intellectual odyssey of “European and American man” that Ehrenreich traces is not the whole human story. Almost every religious tradition, and especially those of Asia, contain a strand of practice that focuses on the dissolution of the personal “self” rather than its salvation. But her conclusion remains intact. Even if you want to believe in a hereafter, it is past imagining, because our own subjectivity is inescapable–and our subjectivity is all we have (although perhaps not as uniquely as we like to think) in the face of the universe. Moreover, should humans’ ingenuity somehow craft a path through accidental nuclear annihilation and climate degradation, a passing asteroid could still extinguish them all in an instant. Of course, Ehrenreich might have painted a far bleaker picture by dwelling at more length than she does on dementia and other afflictions of the brain itself, the seat of all our apparent individuality. How many in the Boomer generation have or will confront the cruel extinction of the self even while “life” persists?
Perhaps this paradox of the human condition is best reflected in Ehrenreich’s own profession. There is no calling more “self-absorbed” and inward-looking than that of the writer. Other arts require interaction with the physical world, with light and sound, for example, but the author’s consciousness is both raw material and product simultaneously. It can offer a form of escape from both the physical world and the company of others even in their presence. The dedicated artist or musician must eventually return to the studio to create; can they ever be as “absent-minded” as the proverbial “professor”? Whether or not we try to commit it to paper, we are all composing and revising an account of our inward awareness with the most evanescent of tools.
But happily for the Woodstock generation who have always endowed collective action with deep meaning, Ehrenreich does not counsel withdrawal. She ends the book by recounting a conversation about mortality with her contemporaries. She does not relate it in much detail–presumably it included some version of the “organ recital” with which we now almost automatically begin every encounter–but I would like to think it held the promise of ironic solace. The saddest part about death is that it’s one experience that we can’t discuss later with our friends, however intimate. “How was it for you?” is not a relevant question. There will be no critique of approach or attitude. “I’d wear something different next time.” I have to admit that “Death is a just natural part of life” has always seemed a lame comment, and especially so when our understanding of “nature” itself comes unglued. But by grabbing the chance to talk about our end in advance, although we can never explain it or elude it, with luck, we might manage a chuckle.