A writer is always looking for ways in which he or she can express old ideas with new words. A writer knows that language must be kept fresh to keep readers from semantic boredom, if not semantic aphasia.
In the senior circles where I spend a great deal of my social time, I hear the expression, Were getting older, a little too often. Actually, I am weary of it. The truth is, we start getting older the moment our one-cell zygote replicates itself into two nearly identical cells. They are nearly identical, I must emphasize, because, in an immeasurably small way, our telomeres got shorter and thereby began the irreversible process of aging that caused us to get older.
What are telomeres? They are the protective tips on the chromosomes of all mammals. They keep the ends of various chromosomes from accidentally becoming attached to each other. Chromosomes are the slender strands that carry the genes that are our units of inheritance, the factors that determine our physical features. Over time, as our cells continue to divide, our telomeres become progressively shorter. This takes place without affecting the genes themselves. The shorter our telomeres get, the more we are at risk for all those health problems that are associated with the aging: cancer, arthritis and a variety of other degenerative diseases.
Scientists tell us that when the sheep named Dolly was cloned, she began her life with telomeres that were the same age as the ewe that donated them. In other words, poor Dolly was truly old before her time. She developed obesity at a very young age and also suffered from early-onset arthritis. On Valentines Day in the year 2002, old Dolly was euthanized.
There is rich irony in what happened to Dolly. Cloning was supposed to be a way of starting all over again. It promised to be the scientific discovery of the fountain of youth. But the ewe that provided her DNA, genes, chromosomes and telomeres also transmitted her age. Cloning, therefore, is not like sexual reproduction that allows new life to begin at the beginning.
Aging and dying are not things we can shake, though we do rage against the approaching night. We resort to bogus anti-aging chemicals, cosmetic surgery, cryogenics, the vain hopes of transhumanism, and other desperate measures. But death remains unshakeable. Human existence is a mosaic of life and death, factors that are as tightly interwoven as telomeres are bound to their respective chromosomes.
There is a question that pundits love to ask: How do you unscramble an egg? The answer is, feed it to a hen. This is not far from what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he advised, in his science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength, not to have dreams, but to have babies. If we want to unscramble our life or achieve a sense of immortality, we must honor nature and go back to the source. Reorganization and rebirth are mysterious processes that belong to the maternal.
There is rejuvenation in the strict sense, but only by having children. It may be humbling to look at an infant and realize that he or she has much longer and more serviceable telomeres than we aging onlookers have. The cells of an infant divide at a prodigious rate in comparison with senior citizens, whose cellular activity slows to a crawl. But it also should cause us to admire the life energy that a child displays that we older folk have been steadily losing. We cannot do much about maintaining the length of our telomeres. If we want to feel rejuvenated, we should involve ourselves with children. Their spirit and energy are infectious. The soul is healed, writes Dostoevsky, by being with children.
A culture that approves abortion, and, as it now appears, is inching toward selective infanticide, is a culture that is getting old without receiving the full benefits that children provide. To grow old, the mandate of which is indelibly inscribed in our chromosomes, without any real form of rejuvenation, is to see life as a continual and irreversible experience of loss. In this context, then, growing old means that a person becomes less and less. Hence, the inevitable connection between abortion and infanticide, on the one hand, and euthanasia and assisted suicide for the elderly, on the other.
Biochemists inform us that 85-to-90 percent of cancer cells are able to divide indefinitely without their telomeres being shortened. For this reason, biochemists can speak of cancer cells in terms of immortality. But their immortality is of no benefit to the human organism. In fact, their presence in the human body can be lethal. They are immortal, but not life-sustaining.
The irony here is that a little bit of death in the form of shrinking telomeres (that preclude cancer) is needed to sustain life. In a similar way, vaccination, which is the injection of a small dose of a disease, prevents the disease from overcoming the organism. So, too, the difficulties that life sends our way, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, as Hamlet says, can also serve to strengthen our life.
The function and operation of our telomeres offer us a fascinating parable. We can strengthen our own life and at the same time become rejuvenated by identifying with and working for the youngest members of the human family, even those who are threatened by abortion. In mysterious and indirect ways, we become beneficiaries of our efforts to promote and defend life.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Semin