Tuesday, June 07, 2005

We Will All Die

News outlets spew a constant stream of medical stories about efforts to increase longevity. Indeed, it seems from our scientific studies over the past century that we are positively obsessed with exceeding our obvious mortal limits. Every day we have stories that make increasing life span the holy grail of scientific pursuits.

Like many cultures of the past we seem to live in great fear of our impending mortality. Think, for example, how effective the symbol of the skull is in our culture. Think of the skeleton scene in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While most experts on aging accept 115 to 120 years as the logical limit of a human life (some researchers say 124 years), multiple websites attempt to refute this theory (this website debunks those myths). You can see here documented instances of people that have lived the longest. The oldest, Jeanne Clement, died at the age of 122 in 1997.

I caught a piece of a TV program about longevity a couple of days ago where one doctor that is an expert in the field stated that your life span is programmed in your genes at birth. He said that although we can do things that reduce our life span from its programmed limit (dangerous or unhealthy activities and habits), there is literally nothing we can do to live beyond our genetic limit.

People that live beyond 100 are simply born with different programming than most of us. When you hit your programmed limit you will experience one or more events that will result in your demise despite any efforts to circumvent it. But since none of us knows for certain what our genetic limit is we generally try to overcome health issues as they arise. You never know what will turn out to be fatal and what will be survivable.

I think that most people would like to live as long as they can with as good of quality of life as possible. Much of the religious right political movement in the U.S. focuses on a “culture of life,” as stated by President Bush. While many Mormons resonate with this message, you will actually find a broad variety of opinions on issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research among active Mormons.

Part of the reason for varying opinions is a certain vagueness with regard to official doctrine about when mortal life begins. More importantly, the idea of stewardship has always had a very strong presence in Mormon doctrine and strongly influences nearly all of the church’s teachings.

In the Mormon view, everything we have belongs to God, including our stuff, our money, our time, our abilities, and indeed our very lives. As we receive blessings from God, he makes us stewards of those blessings while retaining ownership of them. We are tasked with exercising a good stewardship over those blessings within our abilities and we will eventually report on our performance to God (or his representative).

In this view, we have a responsibility to care for the life that God has given us – to manage our resources as well as we can. Before you start screaming “hypocrisy,” let’s all acknowledge that many Mormons that won’t smoke or drink have difficulty living a healthy lifestyle. We all fall short of doing everything we know we ideally should. The point is that Mormons believe that God has made them stewards over their lives and that their lives belong to God rather than to themselves.

With this in mind, Mormons should try to take care of their bodies as best they can while in this life. The proper exercise of stewardship would preclude taking steps to end life before God (the actual owner) wills it. However, since Mormon doctrine includes expansive information about life after this life, inordinate efforts to briefly sustain a dying mortal body are out of line with our stewardship as well.

So reasonable efforts to improve life span and life quality are good, while extreme efforts to stop the inevitable are less so. Once again, this creates a broad grey area. Mormons believe that every person can receive revelation from God about how to properly fulfill their own stewardships, including coming to know when life is complete. However, no one is authorized to do harm, to break the law, or to fail to give needed sustenance and aid, even when it is difficult and burdensome.

In the Mormon view, a righteous stewardship means doing your best given your circumstances. A life that is of low quality such as that of someone severely disabled is still worth living. The irreclaimable failure of life sustaining body systems, on the other hand, signals the end of a stewardship and a time to report to its owner. For those that believe this life is all there is, a disabled or unhappy life is no longer worth living, while every effort, regardless of futility and expense, must be made to extend other lives as long as possible.

While longevity rates have increased over the last century, this has largely been due to prevention of premature death rather than extension of maximum life span. I believe that reasonable efforts to increase life span and life quality are admirable, but that our society has an unhealthy obsession with trying to be immortal in this life. In the Mormon view we will all be immortal at some future day, but unlike Tithonus of Greek mythology, we will be eternally whole and healthy. In the meantime, we should do the best we can with what we have.

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