Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide isn’t exactly a guidebook to “life’s last chapter,” as the author promises. The book does talk quite a bit about Parkinson’s disease, even though Kinsley assures us that it isn’t really about Parkinson’s disease, because that’s been Kinsley’s diagnosis for the last 23 years. And his comments about going through “deep brain stimulation,” a surgical technique that can be very helpful to people with Parkinson’s, as well as his discussion of accepting limitations—giving up driving, realizing you’re not going to be promoted—are illuminating. His suggestion that the baby boomers redeem themselves for posterity by erasing the national debt is whacky. But he does deal with something tremendously important, and that is coming up with an immortality project.
I first learned about immortality projects when I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, which was published in 1973. It had such a profound effect on me that I called my book about aging The Denial of Aging in homage to his. Becker’s point, at least as I remember it, was that it is the awareness of our mortality, more than anything else, that distinguishes us from other mammals.
Now I don’t know if it’s really true that apes are totally oblivious to the prospect of death. But regardless of whether we are unique in this respect, I do think it’s fair to say that our recognition of our finitude profoundly shapes our existence. Some moral philosophers have even suggested that the prospect of further life extension is bad for us as it would induce a kind of ethical laziness—we would keep on putting off doing good because we figured we’d have plenty of time later. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I think there’s truth to the claim that mortality is a great motivator. I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke heaven and hell, some kind of post-mortem day of judgment, to induce people to lead a good life. It’s sufficient to realize that our time on earth is limited: if we want to make something of our lives, we better go ahead and do so. And built into the fabric of our being is a desire to live on after our death, to be remembered, and in that way, to triumph over our mortality. Which is where immortality projects come in.
What Kinsley’s book is about is finding an immortality project. He recommends that the baby boomers undertake a joint project with all the other baby boomers (eradicating the debt), which is more daunting and, in my view, less likely to succeed than embarking on an individual project. But Kinsley’s point is that being diagnosed with a chronic, progressive (and I would add, ultimately fatal) disease brought home to him the recognition that he had better get started. It made him think about what was really important to him—was it material possessions? Was it fame? Or was it something more durable?
Kinsley is telling us is that we need to get cracking. We better define our immortality project, our legacy, and start working on it. For Kinsley, it was the diagnosis of a serious disease that helped him figure out that he ought to have such a project. But for most people, that’s a little late. The real message of his book is not to wait. Don’t wait until you already know what disease is going to kill you. Don’t wait until you have dementia or widely metastatic cancer or advanced heart disease. We’re human: we are mortal and we know it. We should all be working on our legacy for much of our lives, where “legacy” may simply mean being the best person we possibly can be.