Life is wasted on the living, is it not?
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Not my opinion, but that of Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth. He’d know because he’d been through life, come out dead the other side and was now lecturing his great grandson Zaphod Beeblebrox on the subject of dissolute successor generations.
There’ll be three types of reader at this point: WTH (aka WTF)? Yay, Hitchhikers reference. Uh-oh, Hitchhikers reference. This blog entry is directed at … all three, but I reserve the right to return to Hitchhikers in future blogs, not only because Douglas Adams laid down a rich seam of bons mots to mine but because I myself had the honour of meeting him, something I cherish to this day. Those many bons mots generally took the character of an extreme comic absurdity that revealed a serious underlying idea. I am guessing that Adams may have taken the more common old farts' cry of "youth is wasted on the young" and tied it to the torturer's rack.
There are too many areas of the world, despite the huge strides made in recent decades to alleviate raw poverty and precariousness in basic health, in which life itself is experienced as fragile. But there are other parts of the world in which death really is by and large what happens when by whatever meandering path you naturally get to the end of your life. (Yes, I know, the word “naturally” is having to do a lot of work in that sentence.)
However, that said, by my age, which you can broadly guess if I say I heard the original Hitchhikers radio series shortly after I started secondary school, it is rare in Britain not to know of a contemporary or three who have sadly died before their time, whether from accident or illness. But it still makes for blessed sparsity in the unavoidable contemplation of death in any western country that hasn’t actively experienced war in this past generation or two.
That sparsity is of course something to be rightly celebrated without qualification. It may however give rise to a secondary effect of a certain brittleness in a society and its members when the density of dying, to coin a phrase, suddenly notches up, as is obviously happening now with the coronavirus pandemic.
At the risk of characterising it in far too simplistic a way, the receding at least in the West of might be termed traditional means of coming to terms with the brute fact of death such as a private or public expression of faith has been mirrored by the coming to the fore of a framework based on scientific and rationalist principles. By the way, I am sure I am using these terms too loosely but won’t worry about that here for the general gist. When I was studying Transport Economics in the late 1980s, for instance, a valuation methodology was well established for the cost of a life saved such that a road improvement scheme or rail safety enhancement could be quantitatively weighed up. I seem to remember at the time the average value of a life saved was £0.5 million, largely based on modelling of lost average future income generation potential.
Such scientifically or statistically based means of quantifying life and even the quality of life have an enormously important part to play, especially in determining the allocation of resources in areas that affect safety or health. But I think such a near focus on rational quantification has risked leaving a gap in our broader consideration of what life means to each of us.
What strikes me somewhat in the extensive public debate currently taking place about the multi-dimensional trade-offs between containing the coronavirus death count versus economic damage versus curtailment of individual freedoms versus plenty of other dimensions is that extension of these micro evaluation frameworks to such a large scale has taken them to breaking point, and perhaps beyond. This is in part because the numbers and consequences involved are so staggering and seemingly epoch distorting, but it is also because it is impossible any more to contain the debate to a defined set of experts and decision makers whose job it is to look at these things in sober terms. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way.
The unpalatable truth is that public policy decisions are in fact taken every day that trade off death against other considerations, both financial and social. No society could exist without some such mechanism and no-one who gives it more than a moment’s thought would suggest otherwise. But how can this be squared with a mantra such as “even one death is one too many” and suggestive of a gross dereliction of duty on the part of those responsible?
We as a society are having to get used to a density of death unseen in this country for some time and don’t really have a language and terms of reference to comprehend and express it. Among other emotions, it of course raises atavistic fears that we or our loved ones are next and brings about a natural defensiveness that can sometimes seem beyond rational.
However, all of this is a circuitous route to what I really want to say here, which is that the flip side is a manifest mass re-evaluation of what the living of life by those alive is really about. I have written elsewhere about some negative societal side effects of people largely being confined to their homes (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/coronavirus-and-a-loss-of-social-capital-from-thinner-random-interaction), but there has otherwise been a huge upsurge in appreciation for small blessings, for different possibilities and priorities, for discovery or rediscovery or valued friends and neighbours, for a de-rutting from previously normal habits. Albeit being paid for on the never-never of future personal and collective debt that we have no idea how we will settle and sharply divided between the “flexible haves” and “inflexible have nots”, I observe signs of a new vivaciousness at play.
Put another way, I would contend that there has been an uptick in our yearning for a life lived well, for life definitely not being wasted on the living. Whether such a desire will endure beyond the immediate crisis is to my mind the real long-term test of the mettle of our society.
Finally also, having briefly referred to it earlier, whether in these days the young are actually given the means to make the most of the youthful stage of their life is likely to be an increasingly explosive intergenerational question and one that public policy decisions only belatedly seem to be bringing to the fore.