The Advantages of Dying Young

by Jonathan David Price on January 11, 2010 · 11 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Amsterdam, Netherlands. Keats was twenty-five. Shelley was twenty-nine. Emily Brontë made it all the way to thirty. That old man, Lord Byron, was thirty-six when he finally kicked the can. The English have probably the most famous string of young deaths in literature. You just could not keep a Romantic writer alive well into his thirties. Not to be outdone by her former colonial rulers, America has the twenty-seven-ers—rock-and-rollers, each of whom died at that age: Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. Vincent van Gogh is Holland’s great contribution to this gaggle. And let us not forget Alexander the Great (thirty-three), Catullus (thirty) and Marlowe (twenty-nine).

Whenever I read about someone who is dead I always count the years between the brackets. If the sum is less than sixty-five, I feel sorry for him and lament the lost potential. Literary hagiographers ask rhetorical questions like, “What if Keats had lived forty more years?” by which they mean: “If only he had lived on, imagine what he would have done . . .” In truth, he probably would have gone through his ups and downs, soiled his reputation, offended a minor duke, and died of syphilis exiled in Paris. We know him, in part, because he did not have time really to screw up, and he died before he became old hat. This is the story of many famous young deaths, especially in the modern age: a bright flame extinguished, but not before singeing the collective memory.

Nevertheless, there is so much talk about the advantages of long life nowadays that all we can do is pity these “tragic” young deaths. Obsession with longevity is no longer merely an existential anxiety; lifespan has even become a key measure of the health of nations. We are concerned with it collectively. And since quantity of life is what we value, death is the enemy. Thus, there is no such thing as a good death at any age, much less in youth.

“I don’t want to live forever through my work; I want to live forever by not dying,” said Woody Allen on behalf of us all. He will not live forever (nor will his somewhat notable work). But he will live a lot longer than he should, and probably so long that life becomes unbearably heavy for him and those around him. (The fact that he is a lamentable human being will not help him on this front.)

We humans are not so good at living our short lives, yet we late moderns want to live forever by not dying. This is the best solution we have come up with for the problem of finite life. It involves the same type of reasoning which makes us believe that having infinite energy will solve the energy problems of a race that cannot even use limited energy well. While the wish for deathless life is a deplorable form of hubris, it would also be terribly boring. For most of us life is already so boring that to escape it we shroud ourselves perpetually in music and the banality of flashing screens. One wonders why death is not more welcomed as a novel and interesting experience—as X-treme dying, perhaps.

But we hate death almost as much as we hate its friend aging, and we particularly hate young death. Why? What did Keats or Shelly or even Jim Morrison lose? The advantages of a long life, we suppose. However, we could look at this the other way round. Imagine Oedipus had died at age twenty-one in a glorious battle. Long life is not always a friend. If Oedipus lived today, and died young, the only thing he would miss is the experience of becoming a pensioner. He would never see retirement.

How can we object to a good short life? Brief, virtuous lives are enviable. Transient, vicious lives are the problem. We should lament young deaths only if their lives were miserable for themselves and those around them (as many of them are). And we should not become so risk averse in our quest for longevity that we forget those risky things which make a long life worth remembering. Few nowadays understand the joys of smoking or soldiering—and why most soldiers smoke (or used to). We are very bad at appreciating impermanent, dangerous things. We (and especially Europeans) cling so firmly to our futures that we do not even invest in speculative markets well. Conversely, and for the same reasons, we are very good at taxing—especially taxing “sinful,” life-shortening things—for the sake of economic security.

Everything mentioned above—lamenting young death, praising long life, avoiding risk, etc.—is related loosely to the loss of one theological doctrine: heaven. Hell has also been lost, or forgotten. But losing hell as a place of punishment for bad deeds on earth did not change much. Humans continued to make “little hells” on earth, especially during the twentieth century. And fear of punishment has remained a beneficial aspect of human psychology. On the other hand, the existential burden of losing heaven has not yet been accounted for. If this life is all I have, if the pleasures are only bodily, if death is the end, then I owe it to myself to live as long as possible. I am obligated to be healthy, careful, bourgeois, sensible. And I must vote so that others can do the same—I must make them live. I must protect their right to a long life, because this is literally all there is. With no heaven awaiting us, we must stay here indefinitely.

In the modern health system, life can be extended beyond one’s capacity to live. The listlessness of modern death—especially for men—is that you might not even get a chance to show courage before you forget who you are. For most of your life you were more worried about health than virtue, more worried about longevity than living well, and here you are old, alive, and vicious—without one damn good yarn to spin. As with the alternate Oedipus, a young death after or while doing some great deed would have been preferable.

Let us be comforted by the fact that we will someday die. Despite our risk avoidance, life may still be short, and even extend beyond the grave. It must, therefore, be well lived.

—-

Jonathan David Price is a writer living and working in Amsterdam. A frequent contributor to Dutch and European media, he is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Clarion Review (www.clarionreview.com)

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ryan Davidson January 11, 2010 at 9:28 am

You forgot to mention that dying slowly in America is a very, very expensive proposition. Think about all the wealth we’ve squandered on keeping octogenarian cancer patients alive an extra six months. How many houses, neighborhoods, indeed entire infrastructures, could have been maintained and improved with that money.

So the irony here is that we divert money that could be used to keep our infrastructure from crumbling to prevent our bodies from doing so–but they crumble all the same.

avatar eutychus January 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm

A fine article. Thank you.

And I am glad someone mentioned the silliness of keeping old codgers on life support. It didn’t seem to come up in the health debate following the “Fat People” article. Let them die I say! (The octogenarians that is.)

avatar Kacy January 11, 2010 at 1:11 pm

To quote the good Wendell Berry:

“I approve of death, when it comes in time
to the old. I don’t want to live
on mortal terms forever,
or survive an hour as a cooling stew of pieces
of other people. I don’t belive that life
or knowledge can be given by machines….”

Berry, Wendell. “Some Further Words.” In Given Washington D.C.: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005.

As for Jonathan David Price’s post, I think it is important to ask the question: What makes a good death? Most of the young deaths today are attributed to accidents, suicide, and drug overdose. The latter two can hardly be classified as a good death. Most accidents that result in death among the young involve motor vehicles, a very mundane way to die. Still I will gladly die in a motor vehicle accident if I have just been to confession and recieve Christ in the Eucharist one final time. I think this would then qualify as a good death.

Of course my concern is that most young people today (speaking as one 24 years young) have very little creative accomplishments such as a Byron, a Keats, or a Bronte. Dare I say a viciously lived young life is the most tragic, for perhaps one may have repented and learned to love in later life. Personally, I hope age will give me the wisdom of experience and the courage to love others more and be a better human being. This isn’t a fear of dying as simply a cessation of life. It’s a fear of dying before learning how to live well.

avatar John Willson January 12, 2010 at 9:22 am

I know a priest who is fond of saying “We have just the time we need.” This is meant to underscore the “living well” part of JDP’s essay. On the other hand, advocates of “let the old codgers die” (of which the present political administration is full) forget one very important thing. Maybe it is our duty to extend life enough for people to realize that death is not the end.

avatar Ryan Davidson January 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm

John, I hear you, but that sounds like an unfunded mandate if there ever was one.

avatar Barry Brown January 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm

A great-aunt called all of us in one evening for tea, cookies, and a little conversation. She was lucid and happy. When she got tired she asked my mother and an aunt to help her get ready to go to bed. I helped her get up from her chair in the living room and noticed that her hands were cold, so did my aunt who asked Great-aunt Wilma if she wanted to go to the emergency room as her limbs were cold and she said “No, I’m right where I want to be. It was good of all you to spend the evening with me. Now, Thelma and Wilma (my mother was named for her)just help me into my nightgown. Everything is fine.” The next morning the housekeeper found my great-aunt in her bed, dead and cold, so she called the coroner. He told us that Great-aunt Wilma probably died in her sleep shortly after going to bed. No fear, no struggle, a quiet holy death.

avatar Marion Miner January 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

Let’s be cautious about devaluing life itself. Sadly, it is true that many, many people live out long lives in which they find no meaning and do nothing of real substance. However, the “let the old codgers die” attitude is extremely dangerous. The tragedy of a life wasted is not quite so tragic as a life ignored or a life taken away. All human life is equally precious – from the infant in the womb to the middle-aged felon in prison to the eighty-five year old man on life support.

Life itself, apart from anything else, is infinitely meaningful, and God alone is qualified to judge when it is anyone’s time to go.

avatar C. Hitchcock January 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm

What about the doctrine of the resurrection? I’d say it’s much more important in understanding the nature, purpose and extent of life than the doctrine of heaven.

avatar Nursing Homes May 10, 2010 at 10:04 am

Sad reading, but I do agree with unnecessary suffering especially when of an old age, I would not let my Mother to suffer for a pro-long period even though I am totally devoted to her.

avatar Lydie August 3, 2011 at 12:04 am

I hate to disagree…..you’re a decent writer. But, seriously, you sound so incredibly young. I’m young myself (at least, I believe so), and your ideas…well, they just don’t sound fully developed. I am glad that I lived to be older than 21 because, retrospectively, I learned so much from my mistakes. If I live to be 30, I’ll be equally grateful, although I probably won’t be able to improve on my issues until a couple years later.

And your statement “life is already so boring that to escape it we shroud ourselves perpetually in music and the banality of flashing screens”, wow, that’s just sad. I love the internet because there is no end to learning. I hear of something new, and I have the possibility of researching it easily. Incredibly awesome. It’s not something that controls my boredom.

I’m not in search of heaven. I’m agnostic and couldn’t begin to tell you a belief on the afterlife (or lack of), because I have no clue. I have hopes, but no belief, since science has not proved one way or the other.

However, your article lacks insight. It proposed a belief (a belief in a lack of something is also a belief) that was not supported. You may not be a fan of learning more (from one year to the next/from one life to the next/from heaven or hell/ect.), but keep in mind there are endless possibilities, even things we could not comprehend. But I bet you, like everyone else, could benefit from learning more.

Your article, although well written, sounds very, very young.

avatar W.B. October 4, 2011 at 8:17 am

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is a flying…”

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