Essay: A Life Cut Short


Another way to approach the question of what cycles makes cycles well spent is to ask what makes a full life. What would be a complete life? Is it sensible to ask what it would mean to fulfill one’s destiny?

Long before he wrote The Lord of The Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. That same battle cut short the lives of over 300,000 people, most of them young men. Likewise, Ernest Hemingway, Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others all faced firsthand combat before writing any of their great works. Between the two world wars, roughly 100 million lives were cut short. How many of these were potential Hemingways?

So what would be a life not cut short? This might include not only doing the “right” thing during the time we have, but being allotted enough time. We accept that 90 healthy years is a fortunate amount. It’s more than most people get. So, let’s suppose we get this.. What would be the end after 90 years? Who might be an example?

John Horton Conway passed away recently at the age of 82. He is most remembered for inventing a cellular automaton called “Life”. It’s noteworthy that this work was popularized in 1970, when Conway was 32. Had he died before his 33rd birthday, had all his accomplishments after 1970 been “erased”, I would speculate that wouldn’t change much proportionally regarding his contributions to the popular culture. I knew almost nothing about his life outside of Life. Of course, he didn’t just sit on his hands for the next 60 years. He continued making accomplishments both professionally and personally, but 90% of his worldwide “impact” had already been accomplished. Inventing Conway’s Life is a more significant contribution to world culture than most people make, including myself.

Tolkien went on to write The Hobbit (1937, age 45), The Lord of the Rings (last volume published 1955, age 63), then several other works before his death in 1973 at the age of 81. These are only the things we read about in Wikipedia pages. Tolkien was a father to four children. He wrote illustrated letters to them, and this is in his Wikipedia page because these letters were published. It’s only a fraction of what goes into being a loving father.

Can we say Tolkien’s “point” was to produce The Lord of The Rings and be a great father to his four children? Can we say that Conway’s “point” was to give the world his Life automaton? This might all be resting on a tacit assumption that a life is best when it looks like a classic story arc from a high-school creative writing class, with a beginning, crisis, rising action, climax, resolution, and finally “The End” with curtains drawn.

What’s an alternate view? We can view a person’s life as an aimless process? Jupiter’s Great Red Spot doesn’t have a “goal” as far as I can tell. It’s the conflux of surrounding processes, like a maelstrom in the ocean. It just is. But people are willful creatures. Any decision a person makes is based on some criteria. There are grey areas to be sure, but a person can look at two outcomes for their life and have an opinion about the value of them, often preferring one (winning a Nobel prize in Physics) over another (getting Mad Cow disease).

I think the best I can do at this point, is through examples. You might not agree with his business ethics, but Bill Gates created the Microsoft empire, then did much to make the world better through his foundation. Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller among others had similar stories. Did each of these suck every ounce from their time on Earth? Of course not, but you could do worse.

The obvious cases of examples might be the greats: Dali, Newton, Churchill, and so on. What these all had in common is they had some sort of worldwide impact. What about Mozart, who died at age 35, still composing his Requiem? One can only speculate what symphonies would have been written had he lived his “three score and ten”. In Mozart’s case, had radical life extension been available, would there be any point where we would say the “Mozart process” had finished its goal? What about Huschle? You’ve probably never heard of Mary Magdalene Huschle (1896-1971) because she is my grandmother. She’s not famous, but at age 55, she took on the brunt of raising my mother from an infant to an eight-year-old. She passed away in her mid-70s having lived a “complete” life in my view.

What can we induce from these examples? One conclusion might be that we expect our journey to take 70 to 80 years and plan accordingly. For example, Andrew Carnegie did this explicitly in his dictum, which stated that a person should spend the first third of their life on education, the second third acquiring wealth, and the last third on philanthropy. In his own 83 years, he started philanthropy at age 46. Presumably, if he had expected to live to be 150, he would have started philanthropy at age 100.

When Oliver Sacks was in his early 80s, he wrote a collection of reflections on his impending death from cancer. In my view, he seems to be at peace that the world is in a good place and that his work is finished here. He is comfortable with the competence of the next generation of physicians and ready to pass the torch.