On the fairness of life
One of my favorite posts on this blog so far has been the one about my eight lifetimes. In it, I postulated that we measure time relative to our age, and as a result each length of time wherein our age doubles carries an equal psychological weight. There’s nothing scientific about this discussion — it’s just an idea. But it has absolutely changed the way I think about my life and the process of getting older. At the risk of being a shameless self-promoter, I highly recommend reading it.
The argument about “my eight lifetimes” can be summarized this way: in your life you will undergo roughly eight major transformations. That is, you get eight “lifetimes” during which you become a new and different person. If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’re already on your sixth or seventh. This is not to say you have one foot in the grave: having an entire lifetime ahead of you is still a big deal. For me, a 25-year-old, the two remaining lifetimes are the transformation from a 20-something-year-old to a middle aged man, and then from middle age to an old man. Both of those time periods are a big deal, and each of them contains plenty of living to be done. I just imagine that the time period between age 6 and age 12 was a similarly big deal.
All of this brings me back to the Gompertz Law of human mortality. The Gompertz Law is already an extraordinarily fair statement: no one escapes mortality, which becomes exponentially more probable in old age. But if you subscribe to my idea of time progressing relative to itself (of life being composed of “lifetimes”), then the consequence of the Gompertz Law is an almost extreme level of fairness. Look at it this way: about 96% of people survive to age 48 (the beginning of the “eighth lifetime”), but only 4% make it to age 96 (the end of the eighth lifetime). If you try to come up with an equation for probability of survival vs. number of lifetimes lived, you get an almost absurd exponential within an exponential within an exponential. And the result looks like this:
That, in my book, is extreme fairness. Virtually all of us get to live to the end of our seventh lifetime, but almost none of us get to complete the eighth.
It may seem that this argument is somehow making light of mortality among older people. That I am claiming the difference between living to age 55 and living to age 80 doesn’t matter because it only constitutes half a “lifetime”. This is certainly not my intention. The difference between living to 55 and living to 80 is a huge deal. In my way of thinking, each of us is allotted nearly eight lifetimes before we die, and when someone is deprived of some number of those eight, it is a tragedy.
Of course, what this post really highlights is that there is nothing more tragic than death during childhood. If a 40-year-old man dies, he is deprived of the chance to live out his life and become a new kind of person. When an infant dies, he or she is deprived of seven such chances. My wife is working in a pediatric hospital these days, and the stories she tells about shaken baby syndrome are almost cripplingly sad.