Cryonics, December 1984
by Mike Darwin
One of the things that still amazes me in life is the power of exhaustion or depression to fog good judgement and distort reality. Anyone who has ever worked on a difficult and demanding project under a time limit, well into the small hours of the morning without sleep or without adequate tools knows well the frustration and despair which can quickly turn small problems into seemingly insurmountable mountains. Most of us live protected from that kind of thing. Such events are the exception rather than the rule in our lives, because in the Western World, anyway, we live lives where proper rest, food and the basic necessities of life are provided for.
Of course, this isn’t true for an awful lot of the world and it’s instructive to travel a bit and see how people who are sick, infested with parasites, dirty and malnourished manage to struggle through and survive (of course an awful lot of them don’t survive). What’s instructive about this is to either imagine yourself or worse still find yourself in a similar bad situation and see how quickly fighting spirit departs and demoralization and hopelessness set in. I believe it was Bob Ettinger who once remarked that he had seen healthy young men succumb to shelling during World war II because they were simply too exhausted and demoralized to crawl into the trenches–to safety.
One of the great hazards of civilization is that it softens us up. We aren’t accustomed to adversity and bad times and so not only is our appreciation of the goodness of life dulled, our ability to cope with stress is also diminished.
I can’t pretend to be an exception to this. To a great extent I cave in and “give up” sooner than I should–especially if I’m feeling poorly, and not well rested or am badly stressed. In my work as a hemodialysis technician (someone who operates artificial kidney machines) I’ve seen a very large (relative to average Western experience) number of people die from chronic illness. The overwhelming majority of people, especially the old and already debilitated, just give up. They give up in large measure because they can’t remember what it was like to be young, strong, and facing a full life filled with challenge and adventure. I have been sick, very sick, myself sometimes, and I can attest that it is easy to get demoralized and that it doesn’t take many days of serious, debilitating illness before you forget about what it was like to be well and wonder, despairingly, if you’ll ever feel that way again. For me, a good night’s sleep was the best medicine to help me regain my equilibrium and during the worst of my illness I used to “live for the mornings,” knowing that for a few hours after I awoke I’d have some taste of what it was like to feel well and whole–before the demands of the day wore me down again.
Unfortunately, a large number of people (probably the overwhelming majority) find themselves in just this kind of situation as they grow older and lose health and vitality. The senses fade, every activity becomes more of a struggle and brain biochemistry shifts towards chronic depression. Growing old and becoming ill are terrible. We are aware of that intellectually as cryonicists. But we probably don’t know it emotionally. I feel in a fortunate position in some ways because I have some idea, both intellectually and emotionally of what may lie ahead. This awareness has forced me to be prepared, at least intellectually, for the possibility that I will all but forget how good life can be, and that illness and depression may seem to be unending and not worth the effort to escape from.
It’s important to “gear-up” psychologically in this way because, for the time being, surviving demands that we do so. We live in a world where cryonics is not an automatic thing which we have to fight to avoid. In fact, we have to fight to keep it. As we grow older we may lose perspective, we may give up at some point because the fight may not seem worth the effort.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen several times already to cryonicists. I know of several cases where people have let the “little” day-to-day troubles wear them down to the point where they say “what’s the use” about cryonics. I’ve seen a few people who were “go-getters” about cryonics shift gears when sick and depressed and just opt out. Suddenly, life doesn’t seem worth living anymore to these folks and they just give up.
It seems easy to be hard on these people. To criticize them for softness and lack of the “right stuff.” Hard — until you’ve been there. The brutal fact is that it is pretty easy to break most people’s spirits and, once broken, not so easy to mend them. Part of preventing that from happening is to mentally prepare in advance for the possibility of such feelings. Deep inside ourselves, hidden away, we have to make a commitment to ourselves to always try to live, to always try to fight, no matter what. That’s an easy committment to make, a much harder one to keep.
But, it can be kept. In my work in health care as well as in my work as a cryonicist I’ve seen people make that committment and I’ve seen them struggle through, against incredible odds and survive. Putting paperwork in order and providing for supportive people to step in and take over if you can’t carry on is an important part of the physical preparation which all of us should make. Everybody should know, in fact needs to know, that there are others out there to help when the going not only seems rough, but impossible. ALCOR has done that already, and we’ll continue to do it. It’s my great hope that even though I can become ill and worn down, ALCOR will remain young and able to help me. It is my strong conviction and ardent desire that ALCOR be that kind of organization for ALL its members.
It is my certain belief that if we can just get through the night– however long and black and hopeless–we’ll wake refreshed. A good part of living to see that dawn is to never forget it’s possible, even when everything and everyone tells you it isn’t.