Everybody wants to live a long life. But time is not distributed equally and fairly to all. Some live to a ripe old age. Others live an unexpectedly short life.
In the papers today, Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn holds the key to longevity by spending 30 years of her life studying the DNA of single-celled pond scum (called tetrahymena).
Elizabeth wanted to understand how telomeres, which "are the tail ends of twisty DNA strands in the cell of every living thing," extend our life.
The science on this is that the first sign of ageing is when our telomere wears down and becomes shorter and shorter. When this happens, the cell cannot protect and replenish itself. So the cell signals for help from other cells in the body.
But the weird thing is that the shortened telomere is so preoccupied with protecting itself that it resists all outside help from other cells - "much like people who doggedly refuse assistance in the face of adversity because they're afraid to let their guard down," so wrote Elizabeth.
This is the first step of chronic inflammation like "rotten apple in a barrel" affecting all tissues around it. Elizabeth calls the process "inflam-ageing".
Here is Elizabeth's breakthrough.
She discovered that "a person's poor responses to severe, sustained stress directly shortens telomeres, making a body age faster than it should."
So, according to science, "toxic thinking can kill". And the link is scientifically proven with a Nobel Prize endorsement.
Elizabeth emphasises that "your cells are listening to your thoughts." So the cell walls have ears.
She writes this about our thoughts: "Such seeping poison comes, for example, from friends who constantly misunderstand you; a spouse whose persistent gloom colours everyday life; and racist slurs."
Elizabeth added: "Her study of women caring for their sick children versus women with healthy children has also shown that parents with shorter telomeres can pass these on to their children."
Well, parents better watch their conduct and words because they may be passing on accelerated ageing to their children which is far worse than the common cold or a sinus virus.
But the good news however is this: "Everyone can lengthen his telomeres again," she writes. "And slow down or even reverse ageing through exercise, eating well and sparingly - especially the fear of growing old and sick - by meditating and keeping an upbeat mindset."
Lesson? Mm...maybe just one.
Now that science has discovered the "how" of ageing, it is really up to us to seek out the "why" of living.
In a lab, you can isolate almost anything, pare things down to its most fundamental, controllable elements, study them separately, experiment on various structured scenarios, and come up with neat conclusions, which may be repeated with fairly predictable results.
But in life, in living through a lifetime, the variables or circumstances from one season to the other until we breathe our last are very different.
While we all know that there is no short cuts to a healthy lifestyle or ageing, dealing with how our life interact (or react) to circumstances from the most depressing to the most joyous, and from the most hopeless to the most hopeful, cannot be structurally reduced into statistics, experimental results and neat scientific findings.
Life is a trajectory, and filling each point of the tangent that makes up this trajectory are stories of pain and joy, sorrow and hope, failures and successes, and brokenness and growth.
Meaning therefore comes from the narratives we create by choosing to engage actively and positively in them.
That is the integrated wholeness of our life, and there is no sorrow or misery greater than to mistake (for lack of foresight and hope) a season (or tangent point) as the whole of our life, and overlook how that season (or tangent point) can turn out to be a turning point, or an upward trajectory in our life-plot.
When ask whether we want to live a long life, most of us will not hesitate to say "yes". But when ask, "what is such a life for?" or "where is our trajectory bending towards?" and the reply is more guarded, less spontaneous (less autopilot).
I have learned that a meaningful life does not necessarily come with a long life. You can live a life without worrying about finances but yet live a life struggling to find meaning in the face of impending death.
Here, the words of Leo Tolstoy are sobering:-
"Sooner or later, there will come disease and death (they had come already) to my dear ones and me, and there would be nothing left but stench and worms. All my affairs, no matter what they might be, will sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself will soon not exist. So, why should I worry about these things?"
In his search, Tolstoy found solace and anchorage in faith and the afterlife.
Paradoxically, most times, death crystallises our focus. It rearranges our priorities. It converges our attention on things that matter most.
Seen in this light, life owes death a debt. It is a debt of investing in what is permanent, worthwhile and meaningful.
So, a good and meaningful life is not about its length. It is first and foremost about its depth. Do we want to live superficially or pretentiously? Or do we want to be authentic, true to self, pursuing what matters, and raising above the petty nature of things?
And that is the true and enduring challenge of living. It is always to ask ourselves at every point in our trajectory, even at the lowest point, "what are we living for?" and "where is our trajectory bending towards?"
For if an unexamined life is not worth living, then neither is a long but aimless life worth chasing after. Cheerz.