Here’s another of my favorite passages from the Reform liturgy for Yom Kippur, this time from the Yizkor (memorial) service that comes in the late afternoon:
If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live for ever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements, ourselves for always and never any others — could the answer be in doubt?
When this edition of the Reform prayer book was compiled, back in 1978, that was pretty much a rhetorical and abstract question.
Today, it’s getting closer and closer to being a real-world policy question.
The average life expectancy for Americans is now almost 80 years, up from 47 years in 1900 and 69.6 years in 1958, the year I was born. We’re seeing more people living to previously-unheard-of ages of 100 or more.
Meanwhile, advances in genetic science mean that we may eventually figure out how engineer a halt to aging — which genes to activate or deactivate to hit the “pause” button on getting older.
Maybe not in my lifetime, but conceivably in my daughter’s lifetime, that rhetorical question could become a real one with both ethical implications and a price tag. Suppose we could arrange for our children to grow to age 30 and then stay there forever? Suppose we could arrange for ourselves to stay 40 or 50 forever?
Like the rabbis who compiled our prayer book, I find that idea deeply disturbing. We’re already seeing an unspoken tug-of-war for resources between the old and the young. Older childless voters resist tax increases for schools; our society spends more and more on end-of-life medical care, while cash-strapped states cut funding for health clinics and other services for low-income children.
How much more extreme would the old-versus-young conflict become if people started living to age 120, 150, or 200?
And that’s just thinking about social services like schools and health care. What would it mean for the economy and people’s livelhoods and aspirations? If Steve Jobs could live for another 100 years, would he spend them all running Apple? Would that be good for Apple? For us? For the talented, creative would-be leaders at Apple who have the misfortune to be 10 years younger than Jobs?
And what about the world — where resources are already so skewed between have and have-not countries? The U.S. currently accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 25% of the energy. Imagine if Americans lived three times as long as they currently do, taking up three times as much energy, water, food. The worst predictions of Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb never came to pass… but now perhaps they would.
And then there is the personal, existential aspect of this. Let’s say we extend life not just by a decade or two, but by hundreds of years, maybe even indefinitely. What does that mean for being human? What would it mean to feel like you could just go on forever? It would be initially exhilarating, of course. But then people would cycle through marriage after marriage, career after career, one set of offspring after another. Would it all get boring after a while? Pointless? Without death, would we lose our sense of value of life?
We have never been good at saying “enough already.” Every so often someone tries to start a “small is beautiful” type movement in America, and it gets a few headlines and then fizzles out. We have big houses and aspire to still bigger houses. We have fancy sneakers and aspire to fancier sneakers. Discussions about end-of-life decision-making get pegged as “death panels,” and no one dares suggest that there should be limits on how far we go to keep terminally ill people alive.
I suspect it will be impossible to have any effective discussion as a society of the ethics of staying “forever young.” Think tanks may organize symposia, but if the technology is there, we will use it. And it will radically reshape what it means to be human.
I was thinking about all this on Yom Kippur afternoon as someone on the bimah read that passage out loud. “If the existing generation were given the chance to live for ever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love … could the answer be in doubt?”
Of course not, I thought, responding in my good-girl way to the prompt of the prayer book authors.
But in the pew behind me, a middle-aged man gave a muffled laugh.
“Hell yeah,” he said to his friend.