Andy Schmookler: Greedy for life, less so for money

Andy Schmookler

 I’ve always known myself to be greedy, although the nature of my greed has evolved.

When I was five, it took the form of counting my mother’s pennies (her jar of “mad money”). It also took the form of treasuring my collections of baseball cards (bought and traded for) and of marbles (won in competitive games).

Soon, my greed expressed itself in a hunger for knowledge. (I started with memorizing batting averages and population statistics from the World Almanac, and then moved into history books). That appetite to know things drives me still.

But from the beginning, as soon as I got the idea of death, my greed was directed at life itself.

I didn’t accept the idea that my life would have a limit. That seems a kind of greed, because – unlike the place I came to early on regarding money – I didn’t imagine that of life itself I’d ever say, “Enough.”

I remember a train of thought I had when I was six, sitting on the ground under sunflowers, seed-filled things bending under their weight. I was looking for a way out of the “All men are mortal” problem.

First I tried out the idea that maybe I’m special, so I’d get a special exemption from the “life-span” limit.

That route did not seem promising. At the time I’d not lived through the death of any of my relatives, but I saw I had no living great-grandparents. So how might I have inherited immortality? How different from my mortal stock could I be?

Also weighing against my specialness was the way it took months for my scraped knee to heal from my recent flight over the handle-bars of my bike. Which suggested I was made of the same vulnerable stuff as everyone else.

Then I turned to another, more promising route to hope that my greed for life might get satisfied.

This was the early 1950s, and everyone seemed impressed with all the progress made by science and technology. The atom had been split; penicillin used to cure infections; jet planes streaked across the skies, people could be seen and heard live on television screens.

Surely, before aging arrived to drag me down – so far into the future! – science would find a way to stop that  ticking clock lodged within our bodies. Although previous generations had been compelled to pass on to the far side of the hill, the progress of science would rescue my fortunate generation from the downhill slide.

In the 65 years since my thinking beneath the sunflowers, the crest of my hill has long since receded into the rear-view mirror. (Even the older players in the NBA weren’t yet born by the time I stopped being able to jump high enough to get my hand on the rim.)

But still I hope.

The form of that hope has changed some. My earlier hope was that the scientists would come up with something that stopped aging. I’d settle for that, but at this point I’ve got an eye out for something that might reverse it.

Monitoring the news from science, my eye gets caught by articles like the one, a few years ago, reporting that old mice were rejuvenated when transfused with the blood of young mice. Just this July, another study showed that injecting stem cells into a part of a brain (the hypothalamus) can reinvigorate brain function and muscle strength in the middle aged.

Middle aged mice, that is. (Why do the mice get all the breaks?) It seems always to be years before what seems promising in mice can be tried by the species that conducts these experiments and reports these tantalizing findings.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks.

Still hopeful, still greedy for life. But now I’m also thinking of the ethical issues that would arise even if my hopes were fulfilled.

Greed has an intimate connection with selfishness. With greed for money, that’s pretty clear, as is clearly shown by the willingness of so many superrich plutocrats to take from people who don’t have much in order to get still more for themselves.

But greed for life also raises the question of selfishness.

What if science did find the way to overcome our built-in expiration date, or substantially postpone it? What then for this already burdened planet?

When I sat under the sunflowers, there were two billion people in the world. Now we’re closing in on eight billion. New people are always arriving, as they should. Don’t those who have had their turn need to move along to make way for them?

My wife is not greedy like I am. She does not complain about being mortal. She’s willing to live out her lifespan and, with gratitude for having had the chance to live, surrender her place to those newly arriving. Just one of her virtues I admire without matching.

But if an escape from aging were offered, what would I do?

At this point, I’m resigned to the likelihood that’s a temptation I’ll never face.


Andy Schmookler – award-winning author and former candidate for Congress in VA-06 – is writing a series titled “A Better Human Story,” which can be found at http://abetterhumanstory.org/.