We know from science – and our own experience – that time moves in only one direction: forward. With the exception of fantasies fueled by regret, and in that sub-genre of literature known as science fiction, there is no going back.
Without ambiguity, this is a fact and will remain so forever because all life on Earth, and indeed all matter and energy in the Universe, is governed by a principle known as entropy, which loosely translated, means you’re gonna die. Based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy is tantalizingly straightforward, and unrelentingly true. These three syllables determine the fate of the lowliest of insects, the mightiest of redwoods, the cells in your body, and hence you.
Simply put, entropy states that, through time, all matter will transform from a state of high organization (the tight muscles of youth), to a state of disorganization (the flab, moles and graying whiskers of age). Ice melting is a perfect example of entropy, first described in 1862 by German physicist Rudolf Clausius. In hindsight self-evident, yet still achingly profound, what he understood (and put into an equation) was that the “organized” frozen state of ice was transferring energy to the “disorganized” puddle of water forming on the table. There is perhaps no better metaphor for life – the transfer of youth into age.
The Cosmic Archer
Unless you embrace one of the many life-after-death fairy tales that have been spun since human society began – those tall tales of immortality, reincarnation, heaven and hell – entropy rules your life like an autocratic, indifferent deity. Unimpressed by myth, unchallenged by faith, not reversible by beauty products or even the latest iPhone, this titanic law of nature is as immutable and inescapable as any on Earth. Like the apple (not as in Mac) that fell from Sir Isaac Newton’s tree, leading to his epiphany about the constant known as gravity, entropy will always and forever determine the most irreducible fact of life: death.
In science, poetically, they call the long march to our ends “Time’s Arrow”, because, like an arrow in flight moving in only one direction – our bodies never get younger.
Governed by entropy, they only age. As children, we start out as genetically “organized” as we’ll ever get. And on our long linear journey, we achieve the opposite state, the destination from which no traveler returns.
As much as many would welcome the chance to move backwards, rediscovering lost loves, choosing adventure over college, or even crawling back into that primordial armchair known as the womb, there is simply no return. Entropy, the Cosmic Archer that launches Time’s Arrow, has made sure of that.
As entropy “transfers” our youth to age, our bodies over our life spans will accumulate various failures. Not surprisingly, there’s a scientific term for that physical degradation – our ice melting. It’s senescence, taken from the Latin senex, meaning old man, or old age.
Senescence occurs over time. As cells lose the ability to divide, reproduce and repair themselves, their host organism (you) loses the ability to respond to stress; suffers increased homeostatic imbalance (temperature control); and falls prone to life-threatening disease. No one ever dies of “old age”. Instead, with degrading cells, you lose an intrinsic “viability” as an organism, and gain in its place increased vulnerability. Welcome to the Human Condition. There’s even a mathematical model, the Gompertz-Makeham Law, to describe it: mortality rises exponentially as you age. Any nursing home attendant can tell you that.
Don’t Have Kids, Live Longer?
As your cells become victims of entropy, shot as it were, by Time’s Arrow, they gradually lose their youthful “high-organized” state. The increasing disorganization that follows contributes to old age (senescence), and finally, death. Some even call the process of aging “cell suicide”, suggesting that cells kill themselves off. Why cells degrade and die is left to conjecture, and there is no shortage of that.
Some argue the “biological clock” theory, that lifespans are regulated by an internal measuring mechanism. Others key into our reproductive cells, arguing that aging is caused by changes in hormonal signaling over the lifespan. Yet others argue that the cause of cell degradation can be found in the environmental impacts that an organism experiences – the thousand natural shocks that our flesh is heir to. It’s the wear and tear theory. An organism can take only so much, its cells mutate, then ceases.
Finally, some evolutionary geneticists would argue that once an organism has expressed its purpose of reproduction – always in its youthful “organized” state – it loses a defense against lethal mutations and aging (and death) result. Does this mean that you’ll live longer if you don’t have kids? No, because our evolutionary advantages have taken millions of years to refine, but there are sure to be some parents who’ll argue the point.
The Salamander Solution
If we could take a lesson or two from the salamander, which has evolved the ability to self-repair limbs, and develop our own cell self-repairing mechanism, maybe we could outwit entropy, and live a few more lifetimes. Any takers? Or, if it’s our reproductive genes that switch off as we age, causing us to grow infirm and die, maybe we could go to school on the rotifer, the “wheel animal”, a near-microscopic aquatic creature that reproduces asexually by “splitting”. Using this process known as parthenogenesis, we could then bypass our reproductive genes, which paradoxically, could be the ones leading us down the path to our ends. We’d maybe live longer, but honestly, would it be as fun?
Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who went on to become the Czech Republic’s first post-Communist president, said with great poignancy that just as entropy is the basic law of the universe, “so it is the basic law of life to struggle ever more greatly against it”.
We call that the “will to live”. The oldest and infirm show it, as do sick infants, who without any philosophical awareness of death, struggle with all their might to take their last breaths.
In our culture, the “organized” state of youth is by far valued over age. While in African and Asian cultures age is honored with respect, revered as an achievement, and sought out for wisdom, when you get old in our youth-centric world they cast you off like garbage, as if the life you lived is worthless because it’s immune to marketing, and doesn’t need Apps. A culture reaches only what it aims for.
All too aware of their invisible status, having “bred”, having outlived their usefulness in the workforce, many seniors internalize this low status and become hopeless and depressed, living out their days in dread and despair.
Too many of our seniors succumb to the bitter gifts reserved for age – what has been called its “awful discontents”. Who can look forward to out-of-control hair (in all the wrong places), brown bags under the eyes, flab, and those colonies of warts, or worse, a lost mind or a life consigned to bed? No one who earns a visa to that place will ever sing its praises. But there are some who see age as an opportunity and an advantage and who find more than a few tradeoffs.
A Curmudgeon’s Garden
For one, with age comes the loss of vanity, and with that, the eased financial and psychic burden of always having to “look good”. At 75, would you swap out your threadbare clothes for a new wardrobe when you knew you probably had, at best, ten more years to live? The money would go much further toward paying Big Pharma their extortion fee to keep your biological systems in check.
Think of a life without having to work for a living, or without those boring meetings or stress-bombed negotiations. Or of a life devoted to travel. Think of being able to call every male “son”.
Think, after a life lived, of how many shortcuts to problem solving you could acquire, what behaviorists call “crystalized knowledge”. Solve a given problem (or its variants) enough times over the years, and like any fine-tuned database, you’ll have flawless pattern recognition with myriad solutions at the ready. Especially when it comes to the everyday lies that are told and general human folly. Maybe being a curmudgeon is the surest way to seeing your truth, and speaking it, perhaps once too often for your children.
After decades and decades of orbiting the Sun, think of the connectedness you could achieve with other people on the planet. Or the emotional resilience you could acquire, having seen about every heartache, disappointment, exaltation and optimistic daydream that life could throw your way.
All these possibilities translate into something you don’t often find as you hunt for mates, seek material wealth, or build a career: freedom. To discover, to journey, within or without, to explore.
But whether you take your draw of freedom in the vitality of youth, or in the “disorganized” period known as old age, remember that your allotment of ice is melting, that from the day you crawl out of the womb, Time’s Arrow has been shot, and is flying straight for a target it will never miss.