Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber, and fats. I exercise—not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.
— Barbara Ehrenreich, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer
In her recent article for Harper’s, Lionel Shriver raised a point that I hadn’t precisely considered before. Comparing it to the current enthusiasm for demanding “total social and professional exile” for thought-criminals, she noted that during the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-’90s, for the infinitely more serious crime of double murder, there was no equivalent demand to give his previous sporting and acting careers the collective silent treatment, to erase them from cultural memory. Were we more mature and sagacious then, capable of handling ambiguity, or did our vindictiveness simply lack the laserlike intensity that social media would later provide?
Anthony Kronman, in his magnum opus Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, explored the theme at length: having posited that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely free to act according to his own uncaused will, envious Westerners set out to usurp his throne and claim these qualities for themselves through scientific mastery. But what would we do if we had a God-like power to control and optimize existence? What vision of the Good motivates us, exactly? A life of unrestricted choice, free of suffering? What if our desire to eradicate all the “bad” parts of life, from the personal to the political, is just the immaturity of the perpetual adolescent who only wants to affirm a comfortable life of video games and junk food while wearing earbuds to ignore the sound of the responsibilities and tragedies of adulthood pounding on the locked bedroom door?
Ehrenreich has come to the conclusion that freedom paradoxically comes from relinquishing the obsessive desire for control, from accepting that ultimately “only one ship is seeking us.” A life spent in paranoid anxiety over optimizing one’s health is not worth extra decades or centuries of existence, no matter how many tools we develop to make it possible. Likewise, a life spent enraged by the idea that our fellow citizens are thinking the wrong thoughts or pressing the wrong button in the voting booth is a waste of time. The body politic can’t be purified and indefinitely preserved any more than ours can, and the efforts to do so will be rife with unintended consequences.