“I’m going to see Papa,” said a bright-eyed young man who stood before his mother.
“What?” was the only word the woman could choose which could express her bafflement. There was a trace of annoyance in her voice because her morning stimulation had been interrupted. She sat up in the sofa she had been lying on.
“I want to see Grandpa. You said when he retired last year that I could go and see him any time I wanted,” the young man said earnestly.
“Of course you can. But why would you want to waste your time? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to stay at home?” his mother asked. She was right. It was always more comfortable to stay at home. She was no hypocrite, and zealously obeyed this advice, having not left her house for five years.
“I suppose you’re right,” said the man downcast, but then his tone rebounded, “but I want to see him. I can’t explain why, but I feel like it’s important.”
“Jim, you and your emotions! What did I tell you about acting on your feelings? Do you think I paid for all those counseling sessions so that you could come in here and tell me what you feel?” asked Jim’s mother shrilly, her volume increasing. And then she looked like a car that had just run out of gas; the effort she put into her mild demonstration of discipline drained her.
“Do whatever you want,” she said, as if she threw the words from a body collapsing into unconsciousness.
“I’ll be back for dinner!” said Jim, with a smile.
The discomfort began immediately, as the perfect 72 degree house had to be left for the uncomfortable 80 degree sunny day. The sun was bright, too, and by the time the first trace of sweat began to form, Jim was almost certain that he had made a mistake; he was not at all comfortable.
He walked to the corner where there was a Metro station, as there was on every corner. Jim remembered his history lesson about what the Metro used to be, and how people had to walk sometime up to a quarter of a mile to get to the first bus. He laughed within himself. How silly were his ancestors, and pitiful. He remembered his mother’s warning of the discomforts of his venture again as he waited three minutes for the bus.
He told the bus his destination and took a seat. He was the only one on the bus. Evidently everyone else had taken their mothers’ advice and stayed where it was comfortable. It was far too hot to venture out of doors today.
The bus pulled up to the Active Living Center, or ALC, where his grandpa had retired. The bus courteously thanked him for his patronage and he stepped off. Jim looked up at the building. A cylinder rose fifty stories in the air and the polished, windowless face of the building looked like it was pure silver, shining in the sun. The beauty of the building was shoved from Jim’s mind by the painful brightness of the sun’s reflection. The sun was so terribly bright!
Jim walked briskly, but not too briskly, towards the building to escape the tyranny of the sun. As he entered, the doors opened and a blast of perfect air refreshed him, cooling his sweat. Just then he realized that he was thirsty. His mind raced. He knew all about the dangers of dehydration and heat stroke. He had not been thirsty for weeks. He looked around the room for a water machine. There, a few steps ahead of him, was his salvation. He drank the water. It tasted to him like ambrosia, the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. He could not figure out why it tasted so good, having no sugar at all.
Then Jim faced his next crisis. His muscles were sore and his feet aching from his walk to the corner and ride in the wheeled bus. He looked around the room, and saw a lobby chair before him. Jim worried about its ability to provide comfort, but it would have to do. He sat down in the chair, feeling relief as Atlas shrugging.
He was a happy man, but happy in a way that was unusual for him. It was more than the typical electrically-induced emotion. Clearly he felt happy every morning during his morning stimulation; the electrodes in his hypothalamus guaranteed it. But this was different. His respite in the lobby was especially sweet because it had come with such exertion and risk. Jim reflected on what he had just accomplished and felt good.
Then he remembered his mother’s (and counselor’s) words against heeding feelings, especially such dangerous feelings as could make him enjoy suffering. He had been diagnosed with masochism before, but had been clean for almost a year. He did not want to go back to rehab. So, as an antidote for his satisfaction, he reminded himself, item by item, about what he just suffered until his equilibrium (and misery) returned.
He realized that he had not been helped, having been in the lobby for five minutes. His mother’s words came back to him. More discomfort. He stood up, not a little indignant, but was finally met by an attendant dressed cleanly in white. Seeing the attendant reminded Jim of the rest of the room, which was all white. It all looked very clean.
“Welcome to the Abundant Life ALC!” the voice of the attendant was perfect. His voice was as confident and clear as an actor of old. “My name is Dante. How may I help you?” asked Dante with such a sincerity as it almost tempted Jim to feel something.
“I want to see my grandpa,” said Jim meekly, intimidated by the man.
“Certainly! As you know, you can always see your retired loved ones! What is his name?” Dante asked.
“James Anderson,” said Jim.
“James Anderson,” repeated Dante.
A mechanical voice replied from nowhere, “Floor 42, Wing E, Stack 57, Room 1.”
“Follow me, if you please,” said Dante cordially as he walked across the room towards an elevator.
Jim looked around the room with wonder in his eyes.
“Is this your first time in an ALC?” Dante asked, smirking.
“Yeah…” said Jim a bit disconnectedly.
“Well most people never get a chance. That is, they don’t come here until they’re allowed to come permanently,” said Dante.
Dante and Jim stepped into the elevator.
“Forty-two,” Dante commanded.
“Forty-two,” confirmed the elevator.
“It’s too bad. These places are really a sight to behold. They’re the symbol of the twenty-second century, the century we conquered death!” Dante’s voice rose to a triumphant note.
“How did these things come about? I remember a little about it from Science class,” said Jim.
“Towards the middle of the twenty-first century, we had massive casualty rates among our elderly. We had nearly solved infant mortality, but with unspeakable rates of elder mortality. Our great great grandparents (on the first floor) patted themselves on the back when the infant mortality dropped below 5 per 1000 at the same time as 1000 per 1000 elders were dying. Can you imagine? Every son would lose his father and every daughter her mother! What a vicious thing living used to be!” Dante proclaimed.
The elevator had reached the forty-second floor and they stepped out into a circular room. On the perimeter of the room were ten doors labeled ‘A’ through ‘J’. Dante approached the one labeled E and walked through into a long bright hallway with doors on both sides.
“We have defeated death,” continued Dante. “Medicine has developed to the point where we no longer need to say goodbye to our loved ones. We simply say, ‘until later’ and we can visit them whenever we want. Most don’t actually visit, but the point is they can. I suppose it’s not all that different from our ancestors in the twentieth century who didn’t visit their elders. Retirees enter a mental stimulation room and can be woken up at any time. We have studies that prove that they are enjoying their lives far more than we are; they’re happy here. ALCs have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Dante sighed, “I have another fifteen years before I can legally retire here. It’s funny. Buddhists thought you could reach Nirvana by emptying yourself through years of meditation. In America, everyone reaches it when they turn 55. Christians thought you would be reborn if you believed in Jesus. In America, you’re reborn if you pay your taxes.”
They reached a door numbered 57. Dante put his finger on a pad by the door and it opened. Before them was a room, three of its walls covered with tiles, four feet by two feet. Dante walked to the bottom left corner of the left wall and touched the wall tile. The tile was actually the head of a box which slid out of the wall and was seven feet in length.
Jim had seen such a box before. He had seen it in history class. He remembered his teacher talking about ancient rituals humans would perform back when people used to die. The strangest one, in Jim’s mind, was when people would build a box, put a dead person inside it, and then bury it in the ground. He tried to remember the word for the box. “That’s right,” he thought, “’Coffin.’”
Dante interrupted his thinking, “Death is now a dirty word. I still get the shudders whenever I say it. We have advanced from the brutal philosophies of our ancestors who worshiped death and thought there was some value to sacrifice and suffering. Now Science has confirmed what a great man once said, ‘If a man is willing to die for something, he is not fit to live.’ Behold! One of those lucky many who have escaped suffering! Here is your grandfather’s room!”
He lifted the lid of the coffin and before him was his grandfather, looking exactly as he had when he retired one year ago. His arms were crossed, his hands on his shoulders and his eyes closed.
“Grandpa!” cried Jim excitedly.
His grandfather’s eyes moved under his eyelids. Then he slowly opened his eyes and saw his grandson.
“What do you want?” said Jim’s grandfather with an unmistakable annoyance.
“I wanted to see you! I’m here to visit!” said Jim, his mood unaffected by the tone of his grandfather.
His grandfather looked at him in utter confusion. He searched for words as a man groping in the dark for the light. In the end, he could only muster a baffled, “Why?”
“I… I don’t know,” said Jim miserably. “I just felt it would be good to visit you.”
“Do you think you could make me happier than the electrode?” questioned Jim’s grandfather indignantly.
“Well… I didn’t think about it like that. But Papa…” Jim whimpered.
“Exactly. You didn’t think. If you would have thought, you would have stayed at home and studied. Then you could get an easy job to pass the time as happily as you could manage until you could come here. Don’t remind me of the misery of the world!” lamented Jim’s grandfather.
“You had a good time before you retired!” cried Jim. “What about all the time we spent fishing? You always wanted to go fishing! Weren’t you happy then? Don’t you want to go fishing now?”
“Why the hell would I want to fish if I could have this?” Jim’s grandfather motioned at his box. “Sure I enjoyed it, but that happiness is only a fraction of what I have here. We have to make due before we retire. But once we retire, why would anyone want to go back? Do you want me to be join in your misery to relieve you before you reach 55? Is that what you want?”
“I just wanted to make you happy,” said Jim, almost in tears.
“I have infinite comfort, safety and happiness. Isn’t this everything that we’re working for? Isn’t it what you want?” asked Jim’s grandfather.
Jim paused. He could not deny the logic of his grandfather, but he could not say ‘yes’. Of course he wanted comfort, safety and happiness, but something was missing.
“I’m not sure what I want,” said Jim.
“I do know what I want, and you’re interrupting it,” Jim’s grandfather replied rudely.
Jim’s grandfather closed his eyes, folded his arms back over himself and sighed. Dante came over to the coffin and closed the lid. He pushed it back in. Jim stood there motionless for a few seconds.
Dante looked at Jim and laughed out loud, “’I wanted to see you’? Are you serious! You disturbed your grandfather for no reason with nothing to say? Of course he was angry. I’d be angry, too! ‘I’m here to visit’! Ha!” Dante went on laughing.
As Jim was led back out of the building he reflected on what his grandfather said. He was right. Everything in the physical universe pointed to him having a more comfortable, safe, and happy life than Jim. But there must be some aspect of happiness which could not be stimulated with an electrode.
He did not want to be like the man in the coffin. Looking at what his grandfather had become, the picture of a crypt came to mind, with row after row of cabinets containing the remains of men. Is that what his grandfather had become? Was his conversation with a man, or with his remains? Even if his body and mind were intact, had not something decomposed? Did the pleasure rot some part of him? Jim remembered an old book cover which mentioned the body, the mind and the soul; he now wished he knew what a soul was. Was there more to life than comfort, safety and happiness? Jim remembered what he felt after accomplishing his journey earlier that day. It was none of those things, and it was certainly good.
Just then, like a lightning bolt, a beam of light from the sun struck Jim as he stepped outside the building. The now 85 degree air felt as if it was searing his flesh. He realized and finally consented that his mother was right; the house would have been much more comfortable. A too-warm balmy breeze blew away all further thoughts of something more than comfort, for comfort was all Jim could now think about.
Jim would only have to endure another forty two years before he could himself retire. “The sooner the better,” he thought.