I know! I’m as surprised as you are. Death-loathing is kind of my thing, and I always considered that a mark of sanity. But something happened last week that made me think I might be willing to enter negotiations.
It was some article about life extension. By 2050, we’ll have the ability to extend life indefinitely, blah blah. I’ve seen it a dozen times, and the date keeps moving. I used to go all-in for the idea. I’d do the math, figure out how old I’d be, then like Aubrey de Grey’s Facebook page and cut back on carbs for a week.
But this time — to my surprise — my immediate reaction was hell no. I don’t want to live forever. I actually recoiled at the idea of not dying.
This was new.
I made peace with mortality on an intellectual level long ago. I get it — I won’t experience death, I was “dead” before I was born — all of that is good medicine. There’s even some poetry to be found in the return to the universe, the making way for new life. But this wasn’t an intellectual response I’d had. It was visceral, a classic Gladwell blink and the opposite of my every prior response. I have a really good and satisfying life. What the hell?
Then this passage of Montaigne came back to me, one I’d never fully bought into before:
I perceive that as I engage further in my disease [like Pepys, Montaigne suffered horribly from stones], I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find I have much more ado to digest this resolution of dying when I am well in health than when languishing of a fever; and by how much I have less to do with the commodities of life, by reason that I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, by so much I look upon death with less terror. Which makes me hope, that the farther I remove from the first, and the nearer I approach to the latter, I shall the more easily exchange the one for the other….
The vigor wherein I now am, the cheerfulness and delight wherein I now live, make the contrary estate appear in so great a disproportion to my present condition, that, by imagination, I magnify those inconveniences by one-half, and apprehend them to be much more troublesome, than I find them really to be, when they lie the most heavy upon me; I hope to find death the same.
When you are young and vigorous, death is unthinkable. There’s just too much distance. But as you get older, the distance begins to close, not just in time but in state of being. The knees and back (in my case) don’t jump to do your bidding anymore. You have to actually think about what the hell you are eating. Tasks once undertaken while skipping and strewing rose petals now require planning or avoidance. No, this is not a reason to slit the wrists. But you reach a point, after many years of living, when you can feel for the first time the inexorability of the slide. I’ve started feeling the mildest taste of that, the certain knowledge that I’ve passed the summit and am now on the other side of the hill. With skis on.Knowing that no matter how bad it gets, I will have eventual release from that decline, complete and total release, is actually a comforting idea.
Even if we could reverse the effects of aging, there’s still the slow death of surprise to endure. This is not one I saw coming. Oh sure, I delight in things more deeply than I did when I was 22, and in simpler things. But genuine surprise is another thing, one that’s harder to come by, and I miss it. I go much longer between movies or meals or books or conversations that really make me go ooh damn yes thanks. They still happen, and when they do, there’s an extra wheee, I guess. But…you know.
Kurt Vonnegut captured this perfectly in Fates Worse Than Death when he described his sister, an artist:
Alice, who was six feet tall and a platinum blonde, asserted one time that she could roller-skate through a great museum like the Louvre, which she had never seen and which she wasn’t all that eager to see, and which she in fact would never see, and fully appreciate every painting she passed. She said that she would be hearing these words in her head above the whir and clack of her heels on the terrazzo: “Got it, got it, got it.”
I have subsequently discussed this with artists who are a lot more famous and productive than she was, and they have said that they, too, can almost always extract all the value from an unfamiliar painting in a single pow. Or if the painting is of no value, they get no pow.
I’m not yet roller skating through the Louvre in my own life, but I’m walking faster than ever, past movies and meals and books and conversations — got it, got it, got it. That doesn’t scale well to 200 or 500 years, much less eternity.
I floated this whole idea to my 16-year-old daughter, who (being at the beginning of the uphill side of things) I assumed would be all about living forever, as I had been. “Oh no,” she said. “No way. I don’t want to live forever.”
This is a fully nonreligious child, not a shred of afterlife belief. And here she was, embracing true mortality decades ahead of me. I asked why.
“Tuck Everlasting,” she said right away. “When I saw Tuck Everlasting, I stopped wanting to live forever.”
If you’re not familiar, Tuck Everlasting is a 1975 book and 2002 movie that makes a compelling case against immortality — not whether it’s real, but whether it’s at all desirable. I’m not going to say anything else except read/see it if you haven’t, and make sure your kids do as well. There is nothing else like it.
So 38 years later than my daughter’s age, I sat down and wrote a post title that’s sure to get the attention of family members and Homeland Security. But stand down, all y’all. I’m not sprinting toward the light. What I am doing is coming to grips with my eventual mortality in a healthy way. I am going to die, and for the first time I’m feeling less than entirely opposed to the idea.
But “eventual” is the key. Tomorrow isn’t good for me. I’ve got a thing.
Composite of three images all via Pixabay