Book in the Woods

Vita Brevis

Part the second, you may like to read the first part here before beginning this essay.

Life is short. As the technology and medicine has evolved and developed over the last century, the human lifespan has expanded along with it. We can theorize about the end of aging, and a postponement of death for a unprecedented amount of time. Still… life is short.

It matters not if your telomeres can be rebuilt, or your mitochondria revived, when you have a surprise encounter with a semi-truck on the highway. And there is no protesting when your aorta splits, no complaints, and no warranties. Living only goes on for so long, and then it’s done. What comes after? That’s beyond the scope of this essay.

What remains after life, in the land of the living, is what matters when your matter is no longer so closely associated that it possesses a soul. Immortality, some speculate, is not endless life, but a lasting legacy. Take, for example, Hippocrates. His legacy endures in the oath doctor’s give to their patients and professions, and in the quote I am using to guide this series of essays. His writing is, if not immortal, at the least as close as we can currently count it in human history.

Another take on legacy is to leave behind you better people. Whether children you brought forth by mingling your genetic material with another person, then nurtured and raised up into adult human beings who approach the world with vim, vigor, and wide eyes to take it all in. Or, if you yourself do not have offspring: the people you taught, inspired, mentored… as I said in my post yesterday about art and acquisition of skills, a master to mentor the apprentice makes such a difference in being able to yourself master the art. Many of us can look back and point at people who changed the arc of our development, elevating it beyond where we could have on our own. That sort of legacy bleeds over from one generation, to another, and if we could trace it back far enough, we’d see the threads lead backwards beyond written histories to the fog of oral traditions.

We can, knowing that life is short and with each breath we take, growing even shorter, approach the time we have left in a variety of ways. We can be a hedonist, and eat, drink, and be merry. Ever read the parable of the ant and the grasshopper? The grasshopper knew his life was short. So did the ant. But the ant made sure that when spring returned to the land, that his children’s-children to the degree a generation lasts for an ant, would be well prepared to face the new summer with an increasing society. Ants, like people, are a social community. It’s not a close comparison, but… but we can help our fellow humans, when there’s trouble. Like floods, fires, and plagues. To do this, we must eschew hedonism, and consider how to spend our limited days instead.

Myself, I prefer to take the time to relax, eat good food, and plan for the coming times. I’m not going to borrow trouble, but I’m not going to ignore the coming winter, either. Moderation. Well, mostly. I could look at my lifespan, statistically speaking, and say I’m more than half-through it. Or I could look at my genetic background, and the long-lived ladies I’m descended from, and know that I’m not even to the halfway point. If I do the former, I might be tempted to say ‘why bother? If I earn a PhD at fifty, I’m an old lady and it does no one any good.’ Or I could look at the photos of my grandmother clambering over rocks on the Oregon Coast this week (and here, a digression. I know, shocking. But I have to talk about what my daughter, mother, and grandmother are doing. They are on an epic field trip, traveling down the Coast for a week, visiting museums, beaches, and family as they travel. Three generations, all learning together. My daughter is learning just as I did, from my grandmother, about the natural life at the verges of the ocean and beaches. I’m… bereft that I cannot go along, but ever so happy that she gets this opportunity. Ok, I’ll stop now). I can look at what my grandmother, in her 8th decade, can do, and know that I have many years left to seek knowledge.

Still, I can’t help but feel some urgency toward the matter. I worry about taking care of my family, a care I intended to endure long after my passing. I worry over my beloved, who is older than I, with the statistics of men dying younger than women anyway, a doubly-stacked deck against us. I have so little time to explore my world, leave my mark on it, and I still have so much to learn!


4 responses to “Vita Brevis”

  1. Kathleen Sanderson Avatar
    Kathleen Sanderson

    We are having a great time! We have FOUR generations on this trip, though (counting Juniper) — we need to get a picture of all of us together.

  2. Kathleen Sanderson Avatar
    Kathleen Sanderson

    And we wish you and Pippa’s siblings could all be here, too! We are at Florence; going to the South Jetty in a few minutes, then the Pioneer Museum to see some family history, then up the North Fork!

    1. Now I’m a little homesick.

  3. […] longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, indicium […]