5 Reasons You Don’t Want To Live Forever
Some psychologists opine that part of the reason why we stand in line for our tall Iced Caramel Macchiatos and work our fingers to the bone to acquire the latest sports car is to suppress, at least for a while, the nagging little voice telling us that we’re all going to die.
In fact, in ancient Rome, that nagging little voice was quite literally a nagging little voice! As a Roman general rode a golden chariot in his triumph parade, a slave stood beside him and whispered in his ear “Memento mori”—Latin for “remember that you will die”—a not-so-subtle reminder to the soldier that, despite the glory he receives today, he will eventually be worm food. In other words, don’t let this go to your head.
Westerners like us do not like to think about death. In our culture, coveted youth is to be held on to as long as possible and aging is seen as a personal flaw. Inevitably, though, we all have a date with death and the Church gives us Lent to reflect on our mortality.
Reflecting on death leaves some crestfallen—wishing that they were immortal with an infinite amount of time on earth. Let’s say, hypothetically, that we did receive the “gift” of never-ending earth-bound life. If we followed that premise to its end, would it solve our problems and ease our fears? Here are five observations that suggest it wouldn’t:
1. Everyone gone minus one.
The first draw back to being immortal—beyond death’s grasp—is that YOU are immortal, and no one else is. Imagine seeing everyone you love, die. Your spouse, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren, great great great.. you get the picture. Everyone gone. But not you. I’m a wreck when my son scrapes his knee or when my daughter has a tummy ache. Imagine how I would feel going to their funerals. Just typing that sentence turned my stomach! I know this is number one in a list of five, but for me, we can stop here. Never ever have the opportunity to be with my children? No thanks.
2. You would be bored stiff!
And what would there be left to do with all this time on your hands? Not much! Have you ever had a weekend where there wasn’t anything to do? There isn’t a movie you haven’t seen, a restaurant you haven’t visited or an interesting book you haven’t read. So you sit home. Bored. Well, multiply that feeling times eternity. Imagine fulfilling your bucket list a billion times over. Visit the Eiffel tower? You did that five times just this past century. See a Picasso exhibit? Go white water rafting? See the Grand Canyon? Check. Check. Check. Been there, done that, and that, and that, and that….This passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes would take on new meaning for you:
“There is nothing new under the sun.”–Ecclesiastes 1:9
Death helps give life its vivacity, urgency and meaning. In the film Troy, Achilles delivers this line to Briseis:
“I’ll tell you a secret, something they don’t teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.”
3. No one to talk to.
All this acquired knowledge would make you, as the commercial says, “The most interesting man in the world.”
You would have acquired such a vast amount of knowledge through reading, conversations and millennia of life experiences. But who could you share this with? “Hey, remember that time Lincoln was assassinated or the time the Hindenburg blew up? Oh yeah, that’s right.” Speaking to anyone would be incredibly dull and frustrating. You’ve lived it all and have had the time to learn everything about everything. Alexa would ask YOU stuff!
4. Time will fly.
My wife and I do not tell our children if we are going on a family vacation or to a theme park until it is just a few days away. Why? Well, for them, it would be excruciating. As a child, your perception of time is that it drags. Imagine when you were a child knowing that Christmas was two weeks away?! Two weeks?! It might as well be two years. Time just goes by so very s-l-o-w-l-y.
On the other hand, as we get older, time seems to go by faster. How many of us have said “the kids grow up so fast!”,”summer is already here?” or “it’s my birthday already?” As an immortal, your perception of time would become incrementally faster infinitely. A loved ones entire lifetime would be equivalent to the time it takes you to make a sandwich. Eventually, generations would go by in a yawn. And by the time you’re celebrating your 1000th millennium, time would just be a blur. Civilizations would rise and fall in the blink of an eye.
5. You’re getting old.
Our hypothetical premise assumes we receive eternal youth along with our prescription for earthly immortality. Imagine if we didn’t. A doctor once told me that if you live long enough, eventually everyone gets cancer. Face it, at 92 years old, most of us won’t be as resilient, as physically active or as mentally sharp as Betty White. Imagine how we’d fare at 192 or 11,192 if our bodies and minds continued to age and deteriorate eternally. Your brain would crumble as it struggled to remember billions of names, dates, places and events. I guess you’d eventually be just a bag of bones or a conscious glob of goo.
Jonathan Swift in his fictional novel “Gulliver’s Travels” describes a group of humans—struldbrugs—who are immortal, but nevertheless continue to age. When they attend funerals, they weep–not out of sadness, but of jealousy.
On Ash Wednesday we were admonished with the line:
“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
This will cause you to think of your own earthly end. Reflecting about your own death is common and, dare I say, healthy. It keeps things in their proper perspective. The new Jaguar, climbing the corporate ladder, putting things off till tomorrow—Sister Death, as St. Francis likes to call her, keeps these things in check. The Egyptians tried to “take it with them” and failed. A good friend pointed out these song lyrics—”there’s no luggage rack on a hearse.”
As you get older, the thought of your death moves from an abstraction to an ever-increasing reality. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.64 years. Statistically, at 46 years old, I have more life in my rear view mirror than on the horizon. Contemplating our mortality, however, shouldn’t be a cause for fear or panic. We needn’t lie in the fetal position convulsing in a full-blown existential panic. No, our belief in Jesus frees us from death’s oppression. Each word in this passage from Hebrews is packed with meaning. Read it slowly:
“Since we, God’s children, are human beings—made of flesh and blood—he became flesh and blood too by being born in human form; for only as a human being could he die and in dying break the power of the devil who had the power of death. Only in that way could he deliver those who through fear of death have been living all their lives as slaves to constant dread.”–Hebrews 2:14-15
St Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, puts it this way:
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”–1 Corinthians 15:55
As we’ve explored, don’t be downcast this Wednesday, but rejoice. Our earthly death is not the end. Jesus has not called us to everlasting terrestrial life—which would be hell on earth—but to an eternal one in heaven. I’m not sure exactly what that means and I don’t pretend to know. In fact, Scripture backs me up:
“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him.” –1 Corinthians 2:9
But what the Scriptures do describe sounds like heaven on earth!
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”–Revelation 21:4
How about you? As Irene Cara sang in Fame, would you want to “live forever”? Do you regularly grapple with your own mortality? Did you more when you were younger? Older? Share and let’s learn together!
Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.
Is this is an old post as I see that the comments are dated back to 2014? Nevertheless, I find the whole approach to eternal life as explained in the main article very regressive: The idea that we can only imagine in our aspiration to an eternal life, a life which includes all the difficulties of the ageing process. For what is ageing, isn’t it a loss of faculties and strength, a way of dying? Isn’t the lack of breath or heartbeat merely a final sign in the continuum of signs that finally lead to death? From a certain vantage point which includes biological and cognitive, we face a certain decline that starts as early as our twenties. So there is no point in debating on desirability of an extended life which includes all the accompanying ills of old age and which is exclusive to one self. From that point of view we, we have already started dying when we stopped growing.
Rather, it is well perceived fact that life expectancy and the quality of life of the eldelrly has vastly improved and continues to improve across most of the world. While it is not close to eternity by any measure, this entices us to believe that this improvement will continue to lead to a longer period of productive life on earth and hence to longer and longer lives. While this kind of extended life will have to grapple with elements of the 5 reasons presented her, I feel the article misses to make a very important point in the context of Christianity and the debate on life extensions brought on by scientific advancement: We already have eternal life!.
Isn’t this the core of our belief? Yet we continue to talk about death as a possible finality of our lives and present ourselves as completely mortal beings? Are we representing our faith correctly? By faith isn’t eternal life real? Isn’t Mass an occasion for all of us to be in touch with that truth of eternity? Our life here though not perfect, is still beautiful, our journey through death’s doorway to an ever more beautiful life is something we look forward to. Aren’t we supposed to grow towards this eternal life every day representing a growth, so why focus on our current physical bodies dying? This life is what we need to shine forth in our testimony of faith, we need more glimpses of that life for us to move on. Death then can be a grand entrance to that life of normality. Is human imagination as captured by literature the only source and the only conception of possibilities for human life continuity? Christian life is a life that is completed in this earth in the context the promised eternal life.
I like to see more of that faith expression emanating from writers of faith rather than present for our faith as wringing the same dilemma as non faith writers by presenting our continued expanse of human knowledge and human advancement as a part of gift of life itself. The 5 reasons leaves a jarring note in the harmony of our faith with reason.
Well no one wants to live forever
Dean Swift, in his best-known book, describes Lemuel Gulliver meeting the struldbrugs. At first blush, the narrator is thrilled by the prospect of reading every book and becoming a wise old man in spades. Then Swift throws in the mcguffin: these immortals get old — infinitely old — and suffer all the problems of age, to an intolerably infinite degree.
If you’re going to live forever, be sure you write “eternal youth” into the contract before you sign it. Swift, himself no mean theologian as well as a satirist, made the point that living forever without staying moderately healthy at least is a bad idea. But what about staying the age you like forever: literally stopping your biological clock in all its aspects?
Ironically another Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, pictured the solution to the problem is his famous “Don Juan in Hell” scene, a sort of entr’acte to “Man and Superman” that has achieved an immortality of its own. The Devil comments that just now, everyone prefers the same fashionable age, but fashions change. (Nevertheless, in the end the hero opts for heaven instead of hell, choosing, in Mark Twain’s phrase, scenery over society.)
Scientists tell us they are pushing longevity toward 150 years, and reluctantly add that they are working on improving the quality of life at the same time. Maybe. There is plenty of evidence around today that people who live longer and longer are in fact enjoying it less and less. Arrison calls this extended good life “healthspan” as contrasted to “lifespan,” and it’s a vital distinction.
Long life, though, is not the same as perpetual life. Ambrose Bierce called longevity simply an extension of the fear of death. Like gravity and the diurnal cycle, the big D a built-in given in all our lives. But think about this: in outer space, the diurnal dycle and gravity no longer apply. And travel to outer space is today a foreseeable reality, not a scientific fiction. If it’s possible to shed those constraints, what about the third one? (Yes, this is only a list of three items, but they are representative of a number of other factors, cut to three for discussion, if you please.)
One possibility for truly eternal life is still in the realm of science fiction. That would be transposing your inner self, whatever that really is, to a computer program in a piece of hardware that will be maintained forever. A lot of “ifs” in that concept, of course, but there it is nevertheless. It could happen, and it’s a lot more likely, one suspects, than revival of a brain or a body frozen in liquid nitrogen to await some future medical technology.
The brain is indeed they key to this kind of survival. The imagined transplantation of an aging brain into a youthful body is one scenario of several that are still just ideas floating in intellectual space, along with that computer transplant idea. Metaphysicians have speculated on what exactly is the entity that can be immortal ever since the original pharaohs. They considered the “ba” and the “ka” as at least two immortal entities wrapped in the perishable body — even though for those with enough influence, the body was preserved just in case it would be needed. Today we find those preserved corpses fairly useless, but who knows for sure about the ba, which went to something like heaven or paradise, according to the ancient Egyptians, or the ka, which could conceivably take up residence after death in som physical container, like maybe a computer. Perhaps those folks were on to something after all.
Socrates, Plato and the Greeks clearly thought the soul was something that lived on after being separated from the body by the phenomenon we call death. They may have been right, too, and the idea certainly took root in Jewish and later Christian and Islamic religious thought. Similarly, Buddhist and Hindu thought harbor a similar line of reasoning. To some extent, the concept of spiritual eternity may be influenced by the innate hope within all of us (or most of us, anyway) that there is some long-term purpose for all this getting and spending.
There is a fashion among many in the science community that it’s all poppycock, and that when you die, that’s it, you die. Life goes on, but not for you. This, too, may be the final truth. The bad news is, that it doesn’t always motivate people who believe that way to do “good” in life, because they get no payback beyond self-satisfaction and nice memories for the rest of the family. The natural selfish impulse is to do “well” and forget about the ecology and all those virtues that Jacob Marley pointed out to his partner Ebenezer Scrooge. Not everybody in this school of thought believes that way, of course: Carl Sagan comes immediately to mind and one of the most altruistic atheists the world has ever known, and there are probably millions more just as good as he was, who just can’t quite swallow the soft science of belief in a higher power. Perhaps what gives them indigestion is that most believers conceive of a personalized deity: the old man in the white nightgown on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
A personalized God (with a capital letter as a proper noun) is certainly a convenient way to understand an idea that we are simply not equipped to understand. In Abbiot’s classic “Flatland,” one-dimensional beings cannot imagine what it would be like to be two-dimensional, and Flatlanders have trouble understanding our three-dimensional universe. Now, try to visualize four or five or thirteen dimensions, and you’ll see how hard it is. That is a sort of analogy, not quite clear because we don’t (well, most of us don’t) really have the ability to see in our minds what it is, or even come close.
Perhaps, then, it’s the same with our puny understanding trying to grasp some of those spiritual concepts. The really great ones, the possibly legendary composite souls, like Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah, apparently did understand it, and tried to explain to their contemporaries. The limitations of language are always a stumbling block for this kind of thing, but we make slow progress. That’s the key concept, a sort of Zeno’s Paradox. We humans never quite get it all, even if we think we’re made so much progress that we’re now perfect. It’s like a first-grade student thinking he’s now a grown-up. The same delusion can afflict a teen-ager, or a new parent, or a retiree — you get the picture. The centenarian feels the same way, and so will that future 150-year-old (unless, of course, an any stage along the way, one has the wisdom to realize that we don’t know a lot more than we do know).
There is a sort of joke that has been around forever, to the effect that history is all imaginary: the universe was formed when *I* was born, and it will disintegrate in a flash when I exhale my last breath. This, too, is true, in one sense. Probably, just as true as all the other concepts considered here — or just as false. Without question, they are all about as probable or improbable as each other; it all depends on how you define your terms.
If there is a bottom line to this, it is that we really don’t know. Any scientist worth his salt will tell you that we actually know very little. We have overwhelming evidence, for example, that gravity works, that Newton’s Laws operate, within certain parameters, but that there are exceptions to everything er think we know. In the particle world, Newton doesn’t always seem to apply quite as we understand it. The same may be true on a cosmic scale — we can’t be sure. But we can know that certain “rules” and “facts” will do for practical operation in the world we live in. In the meantime, we muddle through, as the British say, and try to follow the moral code we feel is right. For some, that means conservation and care. For others, it may mean exploitation and selfishness. We each have to decide and, presumably live with whatever consequences there are wherever we are, or will be.
Incredible insight and knowledge! Very resourceful. Spiritually inspiring. I’ll be passing this on for Ash Wednesday and Lent significances.