It’s tempting and sometimes even darkly humorous to call living dying, but in truth when we reduce concepts down to the point that they’re interchangeable, what purpose do they even serve? Living is not dying. Dying has to have some substantial component to differentiate it from living or we’re just playing sophistically with words and betraying dispositions rather than committing to ideas. Aging is also not dying, at least not all of it.
We used to assume life ended with breath. That was death. We expired. Now we know it doesn’t. We can restart respiration. We use to assume life ended with cardiac arrest. Well, it doesn’t. We can restart hearts. Now, we use brain death as the marker, although we’ve discovered that you can — with stem cells, bioactive molecules, brain and spinal cord stimulation — bring brains back to life. It’s not especially effective and the bioethical concerns should give us pause, but nothing can be ruled out.
So what is death? The only reasonable definition of death left to us is that having failed to resuscitate any of the erstwhile “vital” organs, that we reach a point, a critical mass in global cell death. Globalized necrosis, cell death past the point of no return. That the DNA holding us together degenerates to the point that it can no longer instruct cellular replication and cells begin to die at a rate faster than they replicate.
But dying is a process, right? Often a slow one. So wouldn’t we always be dying as we live, right up until we’re dead?
No. In fact, rates of cellular regeneration and degeneration are not consistent across lifespans. For the first twenty-five or so years, our cells are almost always simply regenerating. There is nothing degenerative in normal development up to that point. Past this point, certain kinds of regeneration slow or stop while others do not. In some sense, parts of us are thereafter dying. But it isn’t really until one reaches the fifth decade of life that the DNA in our cells is actively degenerating…
At that point, one can, I suppose, be said to be in the process of dying, although it seems rather more or less unnecessary to tell someone who has already reached an age where they’re more than fully aware of their mortality, because their bodies are as good as a constant reminder that they’re degenerating from the inside out.
And so, I dissent. Life is not death. Life is life. Death is death. And at least half of living, if not more, is not even dying.
The only thing that disrupts this pattern is disease and disorder. And not some universal disorder, because universal disorder would wipe the species out faster than you can say strippy fried bacon belly. No, disruptions to life are either inevitable over time due to growth that eventually peaks and becomes a gradual decay or something external to the organism disrupts and accelerates that process.
We have a responsibility to be honest about the inevitability of the first, something our society often fails to be honest about; but have as great or greater a responsibility to the mitigate the potentialities of the latter.