Patients needing patience
Gilbert Meilaender on the quest for greater longevity
“On his widely read blog, known as ‘Instapundit,’ Glenn Reynolds often links to stories reporting on possible advances in scientific technologies aimed at age-retardation and life-extension. And having linked to such a report, Reynolds regularly then adds his own very brief comment: ‘faster, please.’ His is a kind of impatience with the psalmist’s description of our life as 'threescore years and ten,’ or perhaps ‘by reason of strength fourscore’; for, even if fourscore, those years ‘are soon gone, and we fly away’ (Ps. 90:10).
“To set our modern thirst for indefinitely extended life over against the psalmist’s acceptance of life’s limits suggests that reflection upon patience may be a fruitful angle from which to consider the project of age-retardation. . . .
“In the modern era, and certainly in the twentieth century, impatience marked primarily our political aspirations. Putting a human shoulder to the wheel of history in order to try to do God’s work for him, we hoped to fashion, if not a utopia, at least a better world here and now. In the twenty-first century we have focused those impatient hopes of mastery more on science than on politics, and perhaps it will prove less intractable.
“But what if hope for such mastery fundamentally misunderstands who we are? ‘Patience is,’ David Harned writes, ‘simply the embrace of what we are. We are patients, whether we like it or not; we cannot escape our own nature. We come into the world as patients and leave it as patients, but even in our days of greatest strength our condition is no different.’ This need not mean simple acquiescence in our present circumstances or the current limits of human life, whatever those may be — as if we were not also agents. It simply means that our agency is always limited, qualified by our more fundamental condition as patients needing patience. This is the lesson William Temple’s father tried to teach his son, who, as a relatively young man, impatient to be accomplishing his goals, complained of lack of time to get done what needed doing. ‘William,’ said his father, ‘you have all the time there is.’ That is to say, all the time there is for one who is not wandering but journeying, who must learn to wait for ‘the coming of the Lord.’ Our agency is not mastery but participation in a power greater than our own.
“There is in principle nothing wrong with trying to retard aging and extend human life. But as a human project to which we must always say ‘faster, please,’ it may bring with it considerable loss.”
— From Gilbert Meilaender, Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Eerdmans, 2013)