Aging, Death, and the Completion of Being

Blink – there went another three months.

Don’t quit reading yet – this is not going to be just another apology for failing to keep up with this blog. I have no illusions about the world needing it, waiting for it, or missing it when it’s not there. This post is frankly about what I need, and what I fear as I grow deeper into middle age.

But bear with me, I do need to explain my absence. There are, of course, perfectly good reasons why I have not kept up with this blog. I teach full time – which for me means four classes per term, suffice it to say a load most academics would consider incompatible with research and writing – and have taken on the administrative burden of directing a rapidly growing graduate degree program.  I try to stay involved in the broader academic world. In the spring, I participated in an excellent workshop on MCI (which I will try to blog about soon), and reviewed a book manuscript and a book proposal for two different academic presses. And I have a family and friends, commitments to church and civic life. And I try to give those relationships and affiliations the time they need. I have a life, as they say. So yeah, I’ve been busy.

There are, of course, also some not so good but perfectly understandable reasons why I have not kept up with this blog. I waste time. I get distracted by social media and lost in the interwebs. I forget priorities, get caught up in a labyrinth of delusion and self-doubt. In other words, I’m human.

Oh, there is no end to reasons why I have not kept up with this blog. As I suggested in my last back-from-the-dead post, the idea of keeping a blog is absurd, but really no more absurd than any of my dreams of creative work – and that’s my reason for trying to do it. Life gets in the way. But this is not a complaint or an apology. My life, for all of its imperfections, is good.

And life has been like this for a long time, decades at least, the steady accumulation of responsibilities large and small filling my life to overflowing, dreams and aspirations bobbing along in those waters like survivors of a shipwreck. But what’s new in my life now is real awareness that it is finite. I hope to live a long, healthy life, and continue creative work deep into old age. That’s possible, but there are no guarantees. A few months back, I got news of the death of a good friend from grad school that I sadly had fallen out of touch with over the decades. And just recently I’ve learned that another old friend, some years younger than me, is dealing with a serious cancer. These are tragedies, but they are not unexpected, nor unusual events in the long course of human life. I may be able to continue to do creative work for three or more decades, that’s a reasonable hope. But there are reminders every day that I may have much less time than that.

Of course, I can still remember being young, when the problem was knowing what to do with the seemingly endless void of time, days stretched out to a barren, seemingly infinite horizon. But I remember youth too well to want to go back there even if I could. No, I’m happy to accept this as my dilemma, my rock of Sisyphus, my life: an endless, growing pile of things to do, more than I can ever hope to accomplish in the limited time I have left.

Sometimes I succumb to the maudlin, imagine that my situation is like Hemingway’s hero in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” musing on an incomplete life with the nearness and inevitably of death palpable in the stink of his gangrenous leg: “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put off the starting. Well he would never know, now.”

But on good days at least, I don’t wallow in narcissism. My creative work is not about my self-fulfillment as an individual, a man. Not really about me at all. My best ideas and dreams, to the extent that I am able to make them real through creative work, are nothing more nor less  than a small, ultimately anonymous contribution to the vast human susurrus, the mumbling into being of a meaningful world. 

Still, masculine melodramatics aside, Hemingway’s musings undeniably capture something real about being human in the modern world. Acknowledging that my life is finite, I can’t help but think about what I will inevitably leave undone: At least two scholarly books fairly concrete in conception, though the necessary research is barely begun; more vaguely conceived but perhaps more vividly imagined, a series of novels, stories and poems that would be a dramatic departure from the kind of creative work I’ve done so far. If I live to be a hundred, I probably could not accomplish half of this. But, for me at least, staying alive means keeping these projects alive in my mind and doing what I can to make them real in the world. So I find it unnerving to think about these grand ideas and dreams disappearing with my death, their potentiality flickering out within the dying neurons enclosed in my skull.

Book Cover - Aging, Death and the Completion of Being

Aging, Death and the Completion of Being. 

This comes from the title of a 1979 book edited by my mentor and dissertation advisor, the late David D. Van Tassel, one of four books he edited from the late 1970s through the early 1990s that laid the foundation for the historical study of aging. The memorable phrase, “the completion of being” has always struck me as saying something important about aging, but I’ve never been sure what. From the perspective of a hopelessly overbusy middle age, bringing my own life to final and satisfying completion is difficult to imagine. Perhaps the art of living a good life, whenever the time for its ending comes, is to find closure and completion in the face of all that is left undone.

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Creating Time: The Magic of Writing

Well, it’s been quite a while, so I suppose some explanation is in order. I regret losing contact with the handful of loyal readers this blog had, and apologize especially for failing to follow up with some people that I met through it who reached out to me more directly. As I noted in my last apology for a long period of absence from the blogosphere (this must be the second most prevalent genre of blog posts, right after “Hello World – Welcome to my Blog!”), one of my particular challenges has been the elimination in 2012 of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Penn State, where I worked for more than ten years. It’s hard to imagine that I will ever again find an environment as congenial and supportive of my work.

The last year and a half has been about moving on, getting over the loss and building a new life around a new job at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Since my last blog post, there has been the job search and interview, moving  to Philadelphia ahead of my family last January to start the job, countless hours on the Megabus between State College and Philly, selling our house there buying new one here, and moving the family and household here last summer. Until now it’s really been quite impossible to think about the research and writing that this blog represents.

And even now. My official title is associate teaching professor, which means I do a lot of teaching. In my first year here, I taught twelve classes on the quarter system, including the summer quarter. (I believe that would be nine on the semester system).  I’m not complaining. I’ve always loved teaching, and I love it now.

But still, pursuing an ambitious agenda of research and writing with this kind of teaching load is daunting. When I was explaining my new situation to a friend and colleague from Penn State, he said “So you’ve given up the idea of continuing with research then.”

No, no I haven’t. It will be hard, and there is no guarantee I will be able to manage it. And I am ok with failing. But I believe enough in the work I’ve laid out that I’m not ok with failing to try. So, however long the odds, I’m still in the research and writing game.

But given all that, why blog? Why carve time for this out of the precious little time I have for research and writing? For me, blogging is a way to stay connected to the world, to commit to paying attention and formulating thoughts about the things that matter to me beyond the quotidian demands of my life.

Blogging is for me also a means of developing the discipline and practice of writing – to train my mind to be as motivated by the prospect of filling a blank page as it is by the flash of a facebook or twitter notification, or the prospect of spending an evening passively soaking up a movie. Without that discipline, no amount of time will be sufficient for getting this work done. With it, I may find an abundance of time in the cracks and crevices of a demanding life. My theory is that blogging as a regular writing commitment will not just be a slice of the pie, but a way of making the pie bigger.

Maybe that’s magical thinking, but my hope is that it’s part of the real magic of writing.

Around the Web: Omphalos and Hole Ousia

As I sat down to write this, I just realized that it was actually one year ago today that I launched this humble blog. One of the best reasons for blogging and social media is the chance of making contact with people you likely never would have encountered otherwise. This happened with my first post, when Peter Gordon introduced himself in a comment. Peter is a geriatric psychiatrist in Scotland who also has been thoughtfully exploring in video and writing the need to develop a richer approach to dementia informed by the humanities, and the broader problem of the division between science and the humanities in biomedicine.

I was especially flattered that he used extensive quotations from my book in one of his first videos called  The Diseased Other.  Lately, he has been courageously raising vital critical questions about the push for early diagnosis of dementia, which he summarizes in this short film:

Peter makes his videos as Omphalos and shares them on Vimeo. He blogs at Hole Ousia, and  at the Myth of Alzheimer’s blog. Check his work out.

Blogging and dementia: Why this blog? Why any blog?

Like a lot of academics, I have found it difficult to stay focused on my research and writing following the publication of my first book. In part this reflects the usual challenge university faculty have in balancing teaching and administrative obligations, and taking quite seriously the quaint notion of “having a life” outside of work. In my case, it also reflects some ambivalence about my work that I think comes from the peculiar emotional demands of this topic – ambivalence that I may explore on this blog soon. In any case, I intend to use this blog as a way to get and keep my head back in the game. It will be a space for thinking out loud, forging some new connections and staking out some commitments in public as I begin work on a new book.

So this blog will serve as a kind of open notebook to explore issues related to my ongoing work on the history of Alzheimer’s disease and aging in the modern world, which I described in some detail in the “about this blog” and “about me” pages. In the remainder of this post, I want to talk about the questionable enterprise of blogging itself and how it might relate to dementia.

My friend and colleague in the history of the neurosciences Stephen Casper has written a very nice post on his blog that lays out all the good reasons an academic might have for blogging. Still, the sheer absurdity of this enterprise ought to be acknowledged up front.

When I write for any public, regardless of whether the medium is a book for an academic press, an article for a general audience publication, or a facebook status update, I write out of a stubborn commitment to the idea that my life can and should have meaning, and that writing for others can be a means of solidifying that meaning, of somehow making a difference in the world.

But there are at least two problems with publication that have developed over the past few decades that threaten to overwhelm the modern ideal of writing as an act of meaning. The first is the crisis of the overproduction of information that threatens to overwhelm the ability of any individual to know what is important. In the academic world, lip service to interdisciplinarity aside, the accelerating production of new scholarship in every field has made increasingly quaint the notion that, as university faculty, we should be sufficiently aware of major developments across the university to be able to engage meaningfully with any and all of the important ideas of the day. Even in a very narrowly defined subfield, scholars struggle to keep up with the proliferation of new research.

In the blogosphere,where the flow of information is not controlled by peer review and the costs of production are nil, things have quickly become truly absurd. The best current estimate suggests that there are now more than 172 million blogs out there, with about 75,000 new blogs created and more than a million blogposts published each day. The old saw that a roomful of chimpanzees randomly typing for long enough will reproduce a literary masterpiece seems now extended toward its logical conclusion: an infinitely expanding number of monkeys typing will eventually produce everything that it is theoretically possible to say.

In any case, there certainly aren’t enough monkeys in the world to read all that is earnestly being written. Given such daunting numbers, how can choking the virtual world with one more blog possibly be an act of communicative meaning?

A second problem concerns the creation and maintenance of self-identity in a hyper-mediated world. Since the early 1980s, social critics have argued that post-World War II mass-consumer society has presented acute challenges to the creation and maintenance of selfhood. For my purposes here, the most cogent of these critics is psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who argued in The Saturated Self  (1991) that technology wildly proliferate human relationships to the point of “social saturation,” with the result that “the very concept of personal essences is thrown into doubt. Selves as possessors of real and identifiable characteristics – such as rationality, emotion, inspiration, and will – are dismantled.” As suggested by the artwork (shamelessly stolen below) illustrating Teddy Wayne’s brilliant send-up in last month’s New Yorker of the cultural practices of “reposting,” the emergence of blogging and other social media since then would seem only to have exacerbated this problem, as the opportunities to communicate about oneself and what we think is important through new forms of media to an expanding circle of “friends” or “contacts” are coming to seem more like obligations and burdens than opportunities.

And here is where blogging connects to dementia. As I argued in my book, it is no accident that these sorts of social critiques became commonplace at roughly the same historical moment that Alzheimer’s disease was emerging as a major public issue. A disease whose most prominent feature is the destruction of memory, and most dreaded moment is when victims no longer recognize friends and family members they have known for a lifetime, seems to perfectly embody these concern about the erosion of self. Alzheimer’s disease, it seems, is one of the emblematic disorders of a post-modern culture. And conversely, blogging and social media seemsto embody the fragility and fragmentation of postmodern selfhood that has come to make Alzheimer’s so frightening.

Having said all that, I immediately feel the need to issue caveats (which is perhaps symptomatic of the very problems I am describing.) Though the overproduction of information certainly undermines the ideal of writing to create meaning, it does not make meaning impossible. Moreover, though I think the connection I point to between the symptoms of dementia and the way that hyper-mediation of the social world challenges our ideas of selfhood is real and significant, to assert that they are the same would be absurd and dismissive of the real challenges faced by people with dementia. I make a distinction between the dementia produced by the hypocognitive situation of the person with Alzheimer’s, and the confusion produced by a hypercognitive society. Both are profoundly, perhaps at times even equally, disorienting and disruptive of a coherent sense of self. But there is a difference between having one’s cognitive abilities impaired to the degree that one cannot successfully perform expected social roles, and experiencing confusion – even extreme confusion – because social roles that one successfully performs are contradictory and incoherent.

I do not know the answers to these problems, but I do think we do well and grow by acknowledging and learning to live with them. So however absurd it may be in the crowded, narcissistic echochamber of the new media world of discourse, this blog will be a means for me engage in the ritual speech act of talking about some things that I think are important, of taking stands in the world in the hope of connecting to some larger human purpose.

Of course, I do recognize that I may be deceiving myself, that this enterprise may be part of some larger process, some larger, grander scheme beyond my ken. Perhaps I am merely being recruited into that vast and growing army of monkeys typing endlessly toward the information apocalypse that will be brought about when every conceivable idea has been expressed. And on that day the unfolding universe of words and its illusive promise of meaning will finally be brought to its fulfillment. The vast human stream of words will expand to become everything and nothing at all.

Whatever the true purpose of my efforts, I will humbly endeavor play my part…