Selling Immortality

Back in February, in an experimental mood, I accepted an invitation from my good friend Renee to attend a Wellness Seminar. I knew going in that this was going to be very New Age-ish. So I went into it feeling both open and cautious at the same time.

Renee is a friend I made in graduate school back in 1999. She is a couple years younger than me. We are both working through our midlife crises in our own unique ways. Her way is to find a new career in the Foreign Service arena. She wants a new career where she can apply her twin passions: information technology and helping the less fortunate. She’s still working on realizing her ambition and is now working on a graduate certificate in Public Policy. Meanwhile she still makes a decent living working for a defense contractor.

The wellness seminar was held at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Her friend Paul Fogarty put the seminar together. Paul is deeply involved in the Mankind Project. The seminar depended mostly on word of mouth and drew perhaps fifty people. There were times when the number of practitioners seemed to exceed the number of attendees. But for a first attempt to do something like this I think it went pretty well.

One of the first events that piqued my interest a lecture about antioxidant levels in the human body. Most of us know that by eating certain vegetables and fruits high in antioxidants we can reduce the risk of developing cancers. Antioxidants have a number of other healthy effects on the body. The lecturer demonstrated the first FDA approved machine that measured antioxidant levels in the body. We were invited to have our antioxidant levels measured free of charge. We put our hands up to a machine for a couple minutes. It projected what seemed to be a strong red light into our hands. Eventually it gave you your antioxidant score. Both Renee and I took the test. Not surprisingly the machine rated our antioxidant levels as “poor”. Clearly the three to five servings of vegetables I was getting a day weren’t helping me enough. But, as you might expect the man giving the test also had specialized diets and supplements for sale. These supplements he claimed were rich in antioxidants. He said if we ate them long enough we could move our antioxidant levels into the good area. Presumably we would then live very long lives and reduce our likelihood of contracting cancer and other maladies.

As tempting as this was I declined the offer. Meanwhile, out in the hallway was a man riling about the bad things in public and bottled drinking water. Don’t rely on bottled water or water filters he warned us. They wouldn’t remove all the impurities including some vile form of chlorine in the water that he assured us could cause cancer. It just so happened that he sold a water filtration machine (the only one of its kind on the market) that could remove these particular impurities. He assured us that he only drinks water from his own filtration machine now, and that he is healthier because his water is more “natural”. When he asked me where I got my water I drink I shocked with my reply “The Fairfax County Water Authority”. “You mean you drink tap water?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Alas, despite his sound reasoning and the article from a medical journal that he showed me I didn’t feel inclined to buy his machine either.

Next up was a whole food salesman. This man warned us that the food most of us eat would end up killing us. We have to get back to as natural a food as possible, he said. It needs to be free of pesticides and other contaminants. In particular it must not be processed and must be as close to the raw state as possible. He had for sale a number of bags of really unappetizing compressed whole foods that I guess you were supposed to eat like a snack food. He recommended eating nothing but this for several weeks. He assured us as impurities were removed from our bodies we would feel so much better. I wasn’t brave enough to eat samples of the gray lumpy whole foodstuff he was peddling but Renee tried a bite. From the look on her face she wasn’t anxious to purchase any of it, and she is a vegetarian.

We put our names down for a massage. Renee went on the table first and I followed her in an adjoining table. We both got a free zero balance massage from a licensed massage therapist. My masseuse said it was a deep bone massage and he did stuff while lying on my back that was relaxing and a bit unnerving at the same time. But the price was right, even if afterward I felt like I might fall flat on my face for a few minutes. Those bones weren’t quite where I had left them!

Next up was aromatherapy with Juanita Ruth One. Or rather, she is a practitioner of kinesiology, which as I understand it tries to tune into your “body’s innate wisdom”. Basically she had a couple dozen vials of essences. Each essence was suspended in a solution of water and vinegar. She put one drop of each essence under my tongue and then measured how my body reacted by seeing how I held or did not hold a card between my fingers. If I held the piece of paper it was (according to her) my body saying I needed more of it. If I needed more of an essence she found a complementary essence and tried that test. I must have been a difficult case because I seemed to need most of the essences she had, whereas Renee needed about half as many. It seemed a little loopy but she seemed sober and sincere enough. Reading her biography I discovered that some forty years ago she had a near death experience. As a result of it she is convinced there is an afterlife. It was a strange session. At the end she told me that the sexual force was a natural force that I should respect. She gave me a hug too and a list of the essences my body craved.

Renee and I spent much of the afternoon in a wellness coaching exercise with a lady named Natalie Matushenko. Unfortunately I have had many opportunities to get to know psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in my 47 years but this “coaching” thing was new to me. This young, vibrant (and very good looking) coach put the group of us into teams of two. I spent most of my time with my partner Renee. Some of the exercises were really fun. She’d draw circles on the floor and put names on each circle and have us move to the circle that described us best. We worked on things like strengths and fears and then developed some concrete steps we could try to improve our lives. We were paired up with someone else and asked to get their phone number and email address. We did this because we were supposed to check back with them in a week to see if they had followed through on their plan. I neglected to do this, as did my partner, but I actually did try some of the suggestions on improved marital communications that I wrote down. It’s unlikely to dramatically improve my marriage but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Overall it was a mixed experience but I am glad that I went. I can see some value in having a personal coach. The massage felt great and the aromatherapy seemed a bit weird, but there might have been something to it. The other seminars seemed more like sales pitches around a common theme: extend life through changes in environment.

And I’m certainly all for having a long and productive life. I don’t want to meet my maker any sooner than I have to. And yet for me there are limits to this life extension business. I cannot or will not change my habits so much that I deprive myself of so many of the pleasures that make life worthwhile. While I will avoid most of the obvious vices I don’t think I will wholly give up meat laden with antibiotics, or totally avoid those yummy but calorie intensive processed foods. I will do my best to watch my weight but I won’t always be perfect. I’ll eat sensibly and exercise regularly and take my chances. Life at its best should be like smelling a rose in bloom. But for at least some of these wellness people, life is simply about prolonging living, not about garnering meaning from life. I guess when it gets right down to it I’d rather live a life well lived than live a prolonged life and not revel now and then in the joy of a dish of ice cream or the pleasure of a well marinated and tender steak. To do so suggests to me an almost unnatural and unhealthy obsession with avoiding death. Yet all of us will eventually end up dead in a box. To live a long life but to have not really lived it seems an obscenity of a sort. So yes to those New Age practices that help me participate in life more fully. But nix to those New Agers pandering to our own very natural fears of mortality. In that sense they are like a preacher hunting for more souls to come to Jesus.

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