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23 June 2016

Acceptance and change

Is it narcissist to seek a cure for aging? Is it egocentric or immature?

That’s an accusation that often comes my way.

The short answer is that it’s no more narcissist to seek a cure for aging than it is to seek a cure for cancer, or for dementia. (Moreover, as I argue in Chapter 2 of my book The Abolition of Aging, the most effective route to cure cancer may well be to cure aging first.)

Nor was it narcissist of previous medical pioneers to seek cures for TB, or for malaria.

Nor was it narcissist for slaves to dare to want to be free of their bondage. Nor was it narcissist for women to dare to want the right to vote. Thank goodness.

Suffragettes 1024x576

There’s a section in Chapter 1 of The Abolition of Aging where I review a variant of this argument. Here’s a copy of that section.

Acceptance and change

At first glance, rejuveneers seem to stand opposed to a profound piece of humanitarian wisdom – wisdom expressed by, among others, Gautama Buddha, 2nd century Stoic advocate Marcus Aurelius, and 20th century American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

That wisdom urges serenity and acceptance in the face of life’s deep challenges. There’s no merit in becoming unnecessarily agitated about an issue – such as the onset of aging – if there’s nothing that can be done about that issue. Why discuss a painful problem if you can’t change the outcome? What’s the point of complaining if there’s no solution available?

It’s as stated in the opening lines of Niebuhr’s famous “serenity prayer” (a prayer that everyone can appreciate, without any need to believe in a supernatural deity):

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

A similar thought lies at the heart of Buddhism. The “Four Noble Truths” state that suffering arises from attachment to desires, and that suffering ceases only when attachment to desire ceases. To transcend the omnipresence of suffering, we have to learn to accept life as it is, and to set aside desire – such as the desire for better material possessions, pleasure, security, or long life.

The Stoic philosophy of life, developed in ancient Greece and Rome, likewise emphasises an attitude of acceptance. As Epictetus (55-135 AD) stated,

Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.

Stoic advocate Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), who was emperor of Rome for the last 19 years of his life, posed the following questions in his “Meditations”:

Why do you hunger for length of days? The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.

Admiration of “Stoic calm” persists to the present day. Former American president Bill Clinton has been quoted as saying that “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” was his favourite book. Stoicism is highlighted by self-education advocate Paul Jun as providing “9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos”:

Not only does philosophy teach us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also aid in overcoming life’s trials and tribulations. Some schools of thought are for more abstract thinking and debate, whereas others are tools that are immediately practical to our current endeavours.

The principles within Stoicism are, perhaps, the most relevant and practical sets of rules for entrepreneurs, writers, and artists of all kinds. The Stoics focus on two things:

  1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?
  2. How can we become better human beings?

The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short time allotted—these were all meditative practices that helped them live with their nature and not against it.

It is in contrast to these philosophies of mature acceptance – philosophies that emphasise uncomplaining acknowledgement of our finitude and our limits – that rejuveneers can be portrayed as arrogant, grasping, and juvenile. Rejuveneers dare to complain about the perceived insult of deteriorative aging. Rejuveneers have the audacity to imagine that an outcome unavailable to the greats of the past – including giants such as Marcus Aurelius, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Gautama Buddha – namely, the option of indefinite youthfulness – might shortly be available to present-day folk. Rejuveneers, according to this line of thought, lack the self-awareness to realise how unreasonable their ambition is. Indeed, the hubris of the rejuveneers can seem absurd.

Three sages

But the quotes given above tell only a part of the story. For example, there’s more to Buddhism than acceptance. Buddhist mindfulness coach Sunada Takagi comments as follows:

Acceptance is the first step toward change

I recently had a couple people raise doubts to me about the Buddhist idea of “accepting what is.” Isn’t it too passive? What if we’re in a situation that’s really unacceptable?

I’ve come across a few things recently that speak to this. Each makes a slightly different point, but they all basically say the same thing. “Accepting what is” does not mean passive acquiescence. Far from it, it’s the first step in making real and lasting change…

So “accepting what is” is not about passivity at all. It’s about clear seeing… Paradoxically, it’s when we take responsibility for our own failings and difficulties, or those of the world around us, that the real process of change can begin to take place. I see it as an essential starting point for anything we take on in life.

Paul Jun, the writer I quoted above on the Stoic philosophy, also adopts a strong action-orientation. For him, being stoical is far from being passive. It can, as he says, be the prelude to urgency:

Remind yourself that time is our most precious resource

What I particularly love and find challenging about Stoicism is that death is at the forefront of their thoughts. They realized the ephemeral nature of humans and how this is repeated in many facets of life.

It provides a sense of urgency, to realize that you’ve lived a certain number of hours and the hours ahead of you are not guaranteed as the ones you have lived. When I think of this I realize that everyday truly is an opportunity to improve, not in a cliché kind of way, but to learn to honestly appreciate what we are capable of achieving and how we are very responsible for the quality of our lives.

This makes our self-respect, work ethic, generosity, self-awareness, attention, and growth ever more important. The last thing any of us wants to do is die with regret, hence why following principles of Stoicism puts your life into perspective. It humbles you and should also deeply motivate you.

That brings us back to the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr. Above, I quoted the first clause of that prayer – the so-called “acceptance clause”. But there are two more clauses: an action clause and a wisdom clause. Here’s the entirety:

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
.

Just as people can, rightly, be criticised for foolhardily attempting to change something that cannot be altered, so also can they, again rightly, be criticised for passively accepting some massive flaw or shortcoming which, it turns out, lay within their capacity to fix.

The most important clause in this prayer, arguably, is the “wisdom clause”: if we can find out, objectively, whether something lies within our collective ability, it makes all the difference as to whether the right thing to do is to seek accommodation or to seek transformation.

For rejuveneering, I have no doubt that the right thing to do is to seek transformation. Doing otherwise would be akin – to borrow another motif from Christian heritage – to walking past on the other side of the road, keeping well away from an unfortunate traveller who has been mugged, stripped of his clothing, and left half dead. When regarding the unfortunate state of everyone around the world that is already “half dead” due to the approach of diseases of old age, who amongst us will prove to be a “good Samaritan” that sees the plight and provides tangible support? And who, in contrast, will be like the priest and the Levite of the biblical parable, rushing past with eyes averted, preoccupied with whatever else fits the accepting-aging paradigm?

Footnote

I’ll be addressing some of the themes of The Abolition of Aging at a London Futurists event this Saturday. Click here for more details.

DW Scenarios for life extension Slide 18

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