How much time is enough? One is tempted to apply John D. Rockefeller’s famous quip. A reporter is reputed to have asked him, “How much money is enough?” Rockefeller replied, “A little bit more!” Indeed, more time is a good that we should wish for ourselves and others, but is it an ultimate value?
On the eve of his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about longevity in light of his twelve years as a public figure. He had endured daily death threats and numerous attacks on his life and on the lives of his family and friends. King’s words are a challenge to all of us who feel cautious and timid in the face of time. On that fateful night, April 3, 1968, King told the audience at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee that he had already seen the Promised Land.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.
King’s challenge goes to the heart of our understanding of time and the praxis of purposeful living. His challenge is both personal-existential as well as historical-evolutionary. What does it mean to be alive? Are we merely like Shakespeare’s poor actor, each with our own “hour upon the stage, to strut and fret, and be heard no more”? And if there is nothing worth dying for, then for what can it be said that we live?
Through science and technology, we have already extended the length and breadth of human life. Average life expectancy has practically doubled in the last century in many parts of the world and is likely to double again in the 21st century through the new technologies of stem cell transplants, telomeres replenishment, and other forms of genetic engineering. The social, economic, moral, and evolutionary implications of these technologies are mind-boggling.
In the ancient Greek theater, Sophocles’ chorus boasted of our amazing human prowess to create new technologies and tame nature. “Numberless wonders, terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man… ready, resourceful man! Never without resources, never an impasse as he marches on the future – only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue.” In this generation or the next, however, Death too may fall before our amazing human prowess.
This is the stuff for both apocalyptic nightmares and utopic daydreams. Sophocles would warn us of hubris, the kind displayed by his fellow citizen Pericles, who boasted too much of Athenian greatness and neglected reverence for the gods. As we reflect on human prowess today, we might also be advised to reflect on both God and the Good. To what purpose is life abundant? Is there more to life than mere survival and reproduction, than mere pleasure seeking and pain avoidance? In a materialist culture, life extension technology will surely be a killer application.
And as is so often the case, this uncharted future is often best explored in the genre of science fiction. Robert Heinlein’s 1973 science fiction classic, Time Enough for Love, explores the implications of human immortality. The book is written as a chronicle in the year 4272, part history, part fable, about the adventures of the longest living human. Lazarus Long was born in 1916 (in the old Gregorian Terran calendar) before the Great Diaspora in the 23rd century (which marks the beginning of the new Standard Galactic calendar). Through rejuvenation technology, humans have “cured” natural death. While accidental death and “suicide” still occur, there are no infirmities of old age leading inevitably to death. Homo sapiens have multiplied exponentially and now populate the galaxy. The estimated human population in the galaxy in 4272 is placed at the astronomical sum of 7 x 109 x 268!
What kind of “world” is it in which humans no longer need to die? Though we may not make it to that promised land, many alive today may indeed see such rejuvenation technologies. Heinlein explores profound religious questions in this fanciful story of the life and the eventual death of the “Senior.” Mr. Lazarus Long turns out to be a rogue and barbarian, who discovers rather late in life, that the opportunity presented in living is merely to have “time enough to love.” For all his ingenuity and prowess, he was an exceptionally slow learner.
The God/Universe has ordained the necessity of Love above and beyond the Great Eucharistic Law (“eat and be eaten!”) and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (“creativity requires energy!”) And so with this necessity comes a profoundly sacrificial dimension to our lives and the universe in which we belong. In theological parlance, this is the primordial power of kenosis that was present at Creation, that was manifested at Calvary, that has expresses itself in every generation as love. The “letting go” of kenosis is the act of love in which the freedom to become is given and received. It is the power to withdraw power — to let being be as an act of creative concern for other and transformation of self. The Taoists call it wu wei wu. “Non-active action” or “engaged non-engagement” only hint at the true meaning of this cosmic power.
Saint Paul expressed it beautifully in his letter to the Corinthians:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
In the last analysis, long or short, time is always relative. It is not the quantity of our time, but the quality of time which counts. Our time is always of the Essence.
This essay is adapted from an earlier version first published in Science & Spirit Magazine, 9(2), May 1998