“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.”
— George Eliot
The best thing I learned in my time as a labourer was a lesson in philosophy. From a machine driver named Sergio in a Ford factory car park.
He said that the instant a person stops being a child, becomes an adult, they become a dead man.
That was his way of saying that youth is the essence of life, and that maturity—a lack of wonder, an air of content, an acquiescence to that comfortable familiarity of routine—is nothing short of oblivion.
He didn’t really phrase it like that, but I’d been reading a lot of poetry at that time placing a special focus on youth, not life in a broader sense, as the opposite of death. As the contrast between hope and despair, growth and decay, love and heartbreak, joy and sorrow. When Siegfried Sassoon was young, he said:
My heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
And when he was old:
I sit burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
When William Wordsworth said:
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
He also said:
But to be young was very heaven!
Sergio was right: youth really is the essence of life, both physical and spiritual. And ageing really is the emissary of death—in body and soul. The slow road to maturity is paved not once but twice: first, when our bodies deteriorate; then, second, when our spirits wane. This is worth remembering when we consider youth as a concept in direct opposition to demise. To the end of a being wholly defined by potential.
In physical terms, youth is a state of good health, stable fitness, and common ability. To Sergio that might have meant something so little as freedom from an aching back—but even that is a privilege too often forgotten and too lightly dismissed. The ability to act without pain is a right sorely diminished by time. Amongst people aged 18-44, for example, as little as seven percent report doctor-diagnosed arthritis. Of those aged 65 and older: 50 percent. Almost half of the elderly population suffer to physically move. To get out of bed in the morning; to reach for a glass of water and grasp it; to walk to the park; to play with their grandchildren. The physical privilege of youth is both independence and identity, to know of one’s body as both a capable tool and a comfortable home. The evil of age is blunting. The shingles are already loose.
In spiritual terms, youth is a commitment to optimism—to the knowledge that problems are soluble, progress is possible, the future is open. This is what Sergio really meant. A person is a child to the extent that they have things left to learn; that learning is a thing that they actively pursue throughout their lives; that everything in their life is in principle learnable. This is far and beyond the generous platitude parents bestow upon their children as an act of kindness when they are small (“You can do anything you put your mind to!”); it is one of the most fundamental principles of reality. To him it meant travelling over 1000 miles from his home in Croatia, training to become a skilled machine operator in the northern parts of England, meeting his wife and starting a family—all the while never losing sight of his passion for music with hopes to record. He did so in his twenties, still fit and able-bodied, but vowing never to abandon such hopeful resolve: that most unlikely combination of industriousness and delight that sent Sassoon to his writing and man into orbit. Him and every person like him who strive to better themselves well into adulthood stand in direct opposition to the poverty of ageism—one that proffers strength in morbidity and wisdom in decay. Dreams burning in soft flame.
Born to Die
Physical ageing has occurred since the dawn of mankind and long before; genetic evolution has no requirement for animals after active fertility. Human bodies are the latest in a long line of biologically manufactured obsolescent machines, designed to reproduce and then wither and die. Take me. As of writing this, today, I am 26-years-old, still well within natural fecundity and with decades ahead of me in that regard. But even now, after years of potential reproduction, I am beginning to age. My skin is weathering to form wrinkles (laughter lines and crow’s feet); my metabolism has decreased three percent every year for the past five years, and, in five years’ time, my heart will begin to pump less blood, my muscles will grow weaker, and my senses will soften in an ever-increasing process of atrophy and time. Diseases like Huntington's will increase in risk as I grow into my thirties. And then, of course, there is cancer. Alzheimer's and dementia. An entire suite of degenerative disorders brought about by simple wear and tear: the accumulated damage of organelles and tissues with continued and repeated use.
It is no wonder, then, that today’s society is arranged around such fragility. It is all we have ever known. But we are people, not animals. We have exchanged genes for memes and evolution across generations for that within single people. “Let our ideas die in our place,” as Karl Popper said. It is also why gerontology, the science and biology of ageing in people, is so important. Health and hope are closely tied. Who knows for certain whether Sergio would indeed stay true to his untiring vow after his hands became worn with decades of labour. This is not impossible, of course; the human spirit is strong. Stephen Hawking remained devoted to a physics that he loved intellectually decades after his body ceased functioning. Yet the fact remains that both parties really would have been better off with a young, healthy, mobile body, free from disease and regular discomfort. The rejection of despair in the face of old hardships is the exception to the rule of biological debasement: the elderly are sick are rightly so, they will soon be dead and rightly so. That is unless we people, with progress and passion and biological sciences, make it not so. Unless we begin to grow young again.
I said before that gerontology is the science of ageing in people. I also alluded to the nature of ageing itself as something more mechanical than biological: wear and tear. This is the correct way to think about the problem and offers a more intuitive angle on how we can begin to solve it. People are like cars.
Cars, like people, are made up of many moving and interlocking parts. The engine is the most complex of these components, consisting of hundreds of intricate pieces coordinated to move in synchronous series. But (and far more often than we should like) this process fails. Engines break down and tires deflate. This can be the result of any number of system malfunctions resulting from any combination of parts failures. The parts fail because they wear down—they accumulate damage over time as a result of regular use. This is why we oil our engines: to minimise that damage. But, inevitably, all physical parts wear down over time.
This is true not only of cars but all physical systems. It is true of stones on the shore and strings on guitars. It is true, even, of human bodies. Ageing in people follows the same basic principles as that in cars and other inanimate objects: parts accumulating damage with repeated use. Don’t get me wrong: human bodies are really, really complex. More complex than almost any other physical system we know of (really really—look at this mess). This is why we really do need genius biologists working on the problems of biological ageing (things like stem cell research, cures for cancer etc.) and not genius mechanics and definitely not non-genius hobbyist writers (hey). But the principle holds. Bodies, like all other objects, wear down over time. This is all we need to know to begin to understand why it is that we age and how it is that we can begin to stop: repairs and replacements.
The Opposite of Age Is Repair
Cars persist because we fix them, part by part, fault by fault, reliably and repeatedly over years and decades. When a component breaks, we repair it. When a repair fails, we replace it. When a replacement meets the same obsolescent end as its predecessor, we restart the cycle over and again until we no longer possess the money nor the inclination to purchase more spark plugs. We, using our knowledge of their components and their workings and their working limitations, stay one step ahead of the damages sustained by cars with repairs and replacements. It really is that simple.
Once again, this process holds for all physical systems that age over use and yet persist over time. It holds for biological organisms, too. It holds for people.
But once again, I am compelled to the caveat of just how complicated human bodies and biological ageing are. (It is no wonder that it took a narrow super-intelligence to solve the protein folding problem.) But even so: complicated does not equal impossible. (We did solve the protein folding problem.) The challenge of biological complexity is a finite one, and its solution will realise an end to ageing in people as commonplace as that in classic cars. In all likelihood, remarkably more so. The astonishing reality is that, unless you are a gerontologist working at the cutting edge of anti-ageing research, one really doesn’t need to know a single thing about chromosomes or DNA strands or amino acid-folding proteins to know that ageing is a straightforward process of wear and tear accrued over time. One doesn’t need to know a single fact about humans or biology at all to know that ageing is fixable with repairs and replacements. All one needs to consider is a car on the road.
Just imagine it. With an advanced gerontology, the passage of time will no longer equate to the collapse of good health. The elderly can look and act in the same ways as the young: with confidence and without pain. They can get out of bed in the morning; reach for a glass of water and grasp it; walk to the park; play with their grandchildren. They can go back to school or go back to work! A future education extending for centuries. A future economics where every person, no matter their age, is free to collaborate in bilateral exchange basically forever; young, healthy and passionate; imbued with a vigour previously reserved for those at the start of their careers, newly expanded to anyone and everyone with renewed spirits. A democratised vitality for a population of 20-year-olds.
This is what people are. From the moment we become operative in the slightest, we face errors in our understanding—problems—and solve them using creativity. We build towers, fly aeroplanes, paint landscapes, write prose. We engineer vaccines and raise islands from the sea. Why should we stop? It is the sorry mistake of a history dominated by ignorance that we have, like all other animals before us, been diminished by a natural order directed by idiots (genes). One in which most construction workers resent the hard work that pains their old bodies and sit burning their dreams like old man Sassoon. But that was back then. We know better now. We can be children again.
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I loved this. It made me think of a C.S. Lewis quote, a favourite of mine - "when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
I hope you're well my friend.
Really enjoyed this. It came at a great time for me. I'm embarking on a running challenge and this has got me thinking.