We’re passing clouds, fleetingly here
When death strikes, it does so with finality, or so it seems. In a nanosecond, an individual who bestrode the earth like a colossus is gone.
In Genesis 3:19, the good book tells us that “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” If that verse isn’t humbling, then I don’t know what is. That we — humans — are dust, and to that dust, we shall repose. One way of reading it is that we are nothing but speckles of the basest matter — dust. That’s a warning not to take ourselves too seriously.
On Tuesday, death again visited Kenya in the most dramatic way.
One of the most celebrated Kenyans, the indomitable Prof George Magoha, was struck down by the cruel hand of death. The grim reaper came to the vaunted professor of medicine suddenly — unexpectedly — and with cold finality.
But from the media accounts, the professor’s last moments on earth — at least in the body — he went as he lived. He didn’t blink, cower, or express sorrow and fear. Resolute to the end, he gave commands even as he took a final bow.
I, for one, salute him as a true general of life. That’s the only way to go after the storied life the academic giant and administrator lived.
It’s always a dicey game to claim with certainty which human lived the longest. That’s because probably some lived longer, but have no verified records.
For now, the verified human who lived the longest is Jeanne Calment of France who lived for 122 years and 164 days.
She was born on February 21, 1875, and demised on August 4, 1997.
It’s telling that the longest-living human was a woman, not a man. In human years, 122 calendar cycles is huge, but it’s nothing in the sands of time.
We are passing clouds, fleetingly here. We are specks, often of dirt, on the planet. The challenge is for us not to be specks of dirt, but points of light.
Recently, scholars at Harvard Medical School successfully reversed the ageing process in mice. They found that the bodies of animals, including humans, can be restored to their youth through the “Benjamin Button” effect.
Reverse old age
In other words, the body retains a DNA copy of its youth that can be reset to totally reverse old age. The experiment was on mice, but the scientists believe it can be replicated in humans.
You and I may want to jump for joy, but the benefits of the breakthrough may not be in our lifetime. For now, let’s prepare to die — if we are the luckiest — before we turn 122. Which means we must continue to think seriously about living and dying.
First, let’s appreciate the temporal nature of life. Even if one believes in an afterlife, or not, it’s incumbent upon us to live our lives on this earth. That means given the vagaries of life — fortune, status at birth, place of origin, luck, and identity — we have no choice but to make a go of the hand we are dealt.
You may be born with a silver spoon, or you may have been abandoned at birth, but still, you must live if you have a beating heart. It means we must live a purpose-driven life. We must do everything to make sure we increase our life chances. Then we must pursue prosperity for ourselves and our fellow humans.
Second, we need to appreciate that we as humans leave three things behind if we are lucky. The first is our natural biological progeny. In other words, our children, and their posterity.
Second, we leave behind ideas and memories, some written, others only in the minds of those who interacted with us. But those who live behind the written word bequeath us with permanent knowledge to be tested in history.
Third, and finally, we leave behind monuments which include physical structures like houses or premises. Some with last for millennia, others not. So, in a sense, there’s an afterlife for the dead here on earth. That is why we must strive to do good work here on earth.
Finally, I end where I started. Life on earth is usually short, nasty, and brutish for most people. But even if it isn’t for us, we must walk with humility. This applies to kings and the hoi polloi alike.
Life is fleeting and no matter what we have achieved, we must remember we live in community with others, and that our injunction, as the Ubuntu philosophy tells us is: “I am because we are.”
No one accomplishes anything alone, outside the community, or society. One fingernail cannot kill a flea. And those who think so are damned fools. Great societies are built by individuals working in the community, one brick at a time.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.