Longer, but Less Meaningful Lives?
EDITORIAL, 24 October 2016
#452 | Johan Galtung
The last one hundred years life expectancy has increased by about 25%-from near 80 to near 100-in some countries. But, instead of increasing playful childhood, education, work and retirement by 25%, the age of retirement has moved much less than the age at death. That deprives masses of older people with experience and wisdom of productive work, of being useful, meeting others constructively; reducing them to being playful–bridge or golf as case may be–and just keeping alive. Homo sapiens as homo ludens not homo faber. Longer, but emptier lives.
A crime against humanity if there ever was any. However, with two clear remedies: continue working self-employed with pension as salary, or find meaning in dedication to something beyond oneself, some cause, volunteer work. That should be planned well in advance before entering a “career” that peaks before, or at, retirement; the rest being downhill even steeply.
Life is expansion from a fertilized egg to a mature human being and contraction to ever narrower space around oneself till time is up. Western history has many narratives about expansion from some little point to a full-blown empire and contraction to ever narrower spaces. The two model each other with empire expansion giving meaning to life, and contraction, death of empires making life meaningless, with waves of massive suicide ending the Habsburg, Nazi, Apartheid empires. Hitler, in 1940 the head of the largest European empire ever, in 1945 only of his bunker, may have been a suicide model. But it was deeper.
We are now living the accelerating history of the end of the US empire, in the wake of about 11 in Europe; and the general decline and fall of Western hegemony. Suicide waves on both sides of the Atlantic?
To the contrary, EU creates an EU Army HQ, USA elects a president known for belligerence, Brexit England revives symbols of an empire long since gone; finding meaning in war and domination. Far better would have been for all three to lift up the bottom living in misery.
But are we not at least living healthier lives, with lower mortality, and also with lower morbidity? The World Health Assembly of WHO in Geneva 23-28 May 2016 sheds some doubts on that. The Director-General Dr Chan celebrates declines in infant and maternal mortality and in death from TBC and HIV. But on the dark side are air pollution and climate change, drug-resistant pathogens, resurgence of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance, chronic non-communicable disease, chemicals such as lead, pesticides, obesity, inappropriate marketing of unhealthy, sweetened food with gifts and free samples, and lack of access to affordable medicines and vaccines.
We sense profit before/above health, as evidenced by BRICS speakers mentioning TPP; and behind the waning US empire. Shall we die from all of the above, to save the West from transatlantic suicide waves?
From neither. There are good solutions, some medical-technical, some based on state power–laws, taxation, subsidies–some based on people defending themselves with information, boycotts, alternatives. And the USA may even join the world, leaving global hegemony behind.
However, “meaningful vs empty” goes deeper. Take the Internet; very much meaning can be derived from the screen. Or, is there a snag? Wendy HK Chun from “In the Depths of the Digital Age” (NYRB 23 Jun 2016):
“When you read on paper, you are more likely to follow the thread of a narrative or argument, whereas when you read on screen you are more likely to scan for keywords–and may end up with stronger feelings /like anger/ about them, not with the potentially different ideas”.
But cannot anger be as meaningful as ideas? Sure, but anger may produce more anger in a destructive polarization while ideas produce ideas in a constructive cooperation. More meaningful in the long run.
The review calls attention to software in “smart watches” telling the sate of health. Useful, but it reduces the wearer to an object rather than a subject, with “meaning” imposed, not proposed.
And among the leading diseases (Nºs 1 and 4) according to WHO, are increasing uni- and bi-polar depression, both meaning-killers.
Let me share experiences getting older, 86 on the day this is published. No doubt outer life, like work far from home, contracts, eg. to Skype. The circles grow smaller around the home. Work filling it with comfort, beauty and meaning is well spent. But inner life expands if not too much energy goes into health concerns.
I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s article in The Observer, “On Turning 90”: the disadvantages are obvious, but there is the overview, that long-time perspective from having lived long. Events, processes, the non-changes experienced accumulate. Their synergies come forth as wisdom. “What did I learn from that” comes up frequently. Positive, inspiring answers may give more meaning than warnings. And younger people beware, we older know a little bit about love and all that.
When younger, I asked myself how I can, when older, live without such exciting activities; getting older how I could live with them. A life not disturbing endless mental and spiritual vitality opens for deep contemplation. Togetherness with a spouse multiplies the richness: jointly enjoying nature, changing climates, wonderful people, delicious food, culture, in town or at home. Consciousness, a little work, much gratitude are needed. The happiest years of my life.
Childhood, adolescence, early adulthood pass review in thoughts and dreams; to be explored for positive messages, and for something that went wrong and can be remedied. I dream summer and good weather, travel, some kind of mission, something going wrong and being fixed or in the process–in short, a life review. That enriches life by living two of them together, here-and-now and there-and-then. Fascinating.
And the bad things that happened? They are there but go beyond, into here-and-now. Of course writing helps the processing and the search for new horizons. Also looking at a screen, without looking back in anger. But maybe with a deeper understanding pointing forward to one more tomorrow, in that wonderful flow of expanding inner lives.
Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. Prof. Galtung has published 1670 articles and book chapters, over 450 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service, and 167 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.Tags: Aging, Meaning, Retirement, Suicide, Volunteerism, Work
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 October 2016.
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