Episode 132 – “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”

The elderly are often marginalized, discounted as mentally deficient, and viewed as a drain on the resources earmarked for the young and well. “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” follows on the heels of  “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain.” Both concern the relationships between someone who is growing old, and younger family members. Other episodes that address problems of aging in terms of the relationships  the elderly bear to their younger compatriots include “The Trade-Ins,” “Kick the Can,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” and “Long Live Walter Jameson.” These stories all present the plight of the elderly with compassion and understanding.

Like Wanda in “Nothing in the Dark,” Sam Forstmann fears his death. But unlike Wanda, who is alone and avoids contact with people because she thinks anyone could be “Mr. Death,” Sam’s preoccupation with his future death takes the form of a preoccupation with a clock, a grandfather clock that was given to him at birth, and like Sam himself, has been running ever since. Sam believes that when the clock stops, he will die. While this sounds dramatic, and a bit odd, perhaps what Sam is expressing is that that his existence depends on the things he is passionate about, and when the things he is passionate about no longer exist, then he will no longer have reasons for living. Although the object of his passion is a bit unusual, the relationship between reason, passion, and motivation for living is not.

How ought we live as we get closer to death? Should the increasing proximity to death be a factor in how we act or in how others act toward us? That may depend on what we know about the temporal location of our death. Generally, we do no know very precisely, when we will die. We traffic in probabilities. We know the probability that a male will die in their sixties, seventies, eighties or nineties. Using more information about the state of our own health and our habits (called “prior probabilities), we can make more refined probabilistic judgments about our own demise (using tools from probability theory called “Bayesian Reasoning”). As age and/or infirmity advances, we sometimes know how much time we have left.

Whether we are young or old, healthy or ill, the quality of life, our well-being, is affected by our attitudes toward our own death.  Someone who is terminally ill and still well enough to have some control over the course of her life may reflect on what their strongest desires are, and whether they can achieve them. They may formulate what has come to be called a “bucket list,” and resolve to check off as many items on the list as possible. Others may plan for a future in which they don’t exist, by putting their legal, financial, and other affairs in order.

Sam, as we’ve noted is preoccupied by his proximity to death, though he has no special knowledge about how close or far he is from that event. His uncertainty about the date and manner of his death may contribute to his concern. Sam also doesn’t make special plans related to his advanced age. He lives comfortably with his granddaughter and her family, and he has no plans to move on.

Sam does not represent a good model of aging well, and he knows it. Ultimately he breaks his obsession with his clock, both literally and figuratively. The variety of fear of death he experienced had been directed inward. Dreading a future painful experience prevents him from appreciating other people, and from an awareness of their appreciation of him.

One’s well-being isn’t measured by its duration, at least that’s not all of it. Sometimes we say that it’s great just to be alive, but that’s not what we really mean. We mean that there are experiences we value, and  to have those experiences, we have to be alive. It’s great to be alive to have the experiences we appreciate as great experiences. In “Escape Clause”  we saw that someone who could live forever would, under the appropriate circumstances, would prefer death to endless life. It is suggested there, and in the work of Bernard Williams, the fact that we die may make life worth living, rather than being something that we wish would not happen. It is still part of the fabric of human nature that we can view death as something we may not welcome, though keeping that view in check is part of healthy affective management.

Further Reading:

See references for “Kick the Can” and  “Escape Clause.”


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