The Life Penalty
By Vasu Ramanujam
All the talk of death penalty made me think of the reverse notion - life
itself as a penalty.
For perhaps three quarters of the dwellers of this planet, who lack
basic amenities, for whom life is a daily drudgery, endless toil, and
the excruciating misery of mind control or oppression by people in
power, life itself must seem like a punishment. A character in an old
play by Badal Sircar (it was staged at OAT I believe,) brought up this
shocking thought - the wonder is not that some people end their
lives voluntarily by suicide, the wonder is that so many don't.
Life extension is a big thing with some people who already enjoy a full,
prosperous life in America. The fountain of youth is a big
thing with some people who have already misspent their lives chasing
material mirages. There is zero acceptance of mortality in this
society that thinks science will one day make people immortal. Here is
the promise. Latter day Ponce de Leons in white lab coats are
working feverishly to make that happen. So rejoice, immortality is
Great new promise! Brave new world! Doddering old Markeandeyas, all of
us will one day be. We will march into eternal life not through karmic
acts, or through acts of redemption, or by becoming a born- again
whatever, but through genetic manipulation and a daily regime of 200
tablets and capsules that can intervene in every aging process that is
going on in our bodies. Billions of dollars are spent on research,
suspect medicines, supplements, and herbs in the hope of life
On the other hand, the pitiful character Gollum in the Lord of the
Rings, we are told, was "punished" with a long life. The narrator
of "The Green Mile" also lives a very long life, tormented by his
memories of life as a death row warden.
Some imaginative writers have speculated that endless life would
arguably be as insufferable as premature death or suicide is painful.
An old movie named "Soylent Green" with Charlton Heston actually
speculated about the possibility of death as an attractive choice in
a world destroyed by pollution. The Edward G. Robinson character walks
into a center for life extinction and buys himself a ticket to
the other side. Surrounded by projected images of a green world that has
long since been replaced by concrete and steel jungles, he buys his own
I am with the philosophers on this. Don't mistake me. I'm not suicidal.
I am not a manic depressive. I am not arguing for any kind
of voluntary life termination. But I strongly believe death acceptance
is necessary. Live a good life, by all means, but when your time is up,
have the grace to welcome the opportunity to return to the void from
which you came. Don't assume that a long, even endless life, is
necessarily a good thing.
So, let me see, you are going to give me the means to live to be 200
years old. During those 200 years what will I see? More flowers
fading? More denuded forests on mountaintops? More tigers vanishing?
Bigger ozone holes? What is so special about me that I, human, should
outlast every other manifestation of nature there is? What treats do you
have in store for me? More children dying of malnutrition?
Why? Why, pray, why?
I hope the genetic manipulators, the herbal formulations makers, and
sci-fi dreamers would let us die quietly rather than trying to give
us everlasting or even a needlessly prolonged life. I appreciate the
medical advances that have been made, and all the wonderful things I
have come to take for granted. But it is time the medical establishment
did other things now. Go, attack malnutrition and AIDS
in Africa. Go address basic pathologies like malaria, night blindness,
and tuberculosis, in other parts of the world. Don't waste
your time adding two more years to my life when my life expectancy is
already at 78 years. Those two years can't be worth as much to me as
they'd be to the 50% or 60% of the children in many less developed
countries who will not live to see their fifth birthdays. Idiot
world, get your priorities straight. Let me die, you hear me? I am quite
at peace with that idea. Leave me be and tend to the other now.
There are other, better ways in my opinion, to get to everlasting life.
Understand that everlasting life is possibly already yours for
leading a good life, even if it lasts only a few years. Making a
difference to a fellowman, appreciating the huge, huge, huge gift
every passing minute is, is a better path to everlasting life, not
silly, obscure chemicals of unknown efficacy or side effects that
have been dreamed up in some sterile laboratory.
Who the heck are you to determine the span of my life, anyway? Who the
heck am I to determine the span of my life?
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Dr. Vasu Ramanujam is a
Professor at Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve
University, Cleveland, Ohio.