Do you want to live forever ?
or, How to get in my front door
I have long professed that Conscientious Life, not Life itself, and certainly not long life is the Ultimate Good. In other words, how we live ought better to be our primary consideration and measuring stick of life, not how long we live. But I suppose that objective longevity is more appealing to people’s hearts and minds than subjective quality, setting the stage for the dreamy-eyed admiration we have for attainment of extreme age. Furthermore, regard for achievements of objective longevity might contribute to a welcome feeling of scientific nonpartisanship. Who knows? So, when I read the news in the papers here on Saturday, June 20th about the death of the world’s oldest man - and oldest Japanese - 113-year-old Tomoji Tanabe of Miyazaki Prefecture, I was given one more chance to ponder the subject. Subsequently, the honor of World’s Oldest Living Man fell to 113-year-old First World War veteran Henry Allingham of England (one of only two Great War veterans then remaining of the U.K.’s mobilization - both of whom have died since I wrote this story), while the title of World’s Oldest Living Person remains unchanged with 115-year-old Gertrude Baines of Los Angeles.* Of course, these longevity achievements do not yet approach the monumental life of Frenchwoman Jeanne Louise Calment who died in at the confirmed age of 122 in 1997. (She was the last living person to know the voice of Vincent Van Gogh which I find impressive for its tragic and weird terrificness. She met the artist in her father’s shop in Arles at the age of 14. Come to think of it, she was probably the last living person to know the sounds of a lot of deceased people’s voices, not only Van Gogh’s.)
Thinking in terms of hundred-year life spans - which admittedly are neither average nor conventional, which begs their facility as a term of reference in the first place - it is illuminating to think that we are still within the lifetime memory of Hitler, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, we are only just over one lifetime removed from Van Gogh, two lifetimes from Napoleon, six lifetimes removed from Henry VIII, 20 lifetimes removed from Jesus Christ, etc. Almost all human civilization can fit into about 60 or 70 hundred-year life spans, and modern homo sapiens as a species can fit within 1,000 life spans. Picture it like this: line up 60 or 70 living centenarians and the accumulated years of their lives encompasse all of human civilization. It stuns the imagination, to think how busy we are and how inter-connected we are. So much sex. So much building and painting and writing and farming and singing and joking and fighting and killing and destroying. Similarly, line up one thousand living centenarians and the accumulated years of their lives represents our entire homo sapiens species. Almost unimaginable!
Humans fear death because - supposedly unlike other animals - we can imagine and anticipate it, and we typically fear the unknown as well as the expectation of pain, fear, loneliness and annihilation. So, long life has evolved into a goal, the achievement of which - either by design or chance - is consistently admired, revered and congratulated. And then, people with an agenda - let’s say religious people, for example - use the fear of death as a marketing/evangelizing ploy.
I would not like to live forever, and certainly not in the company of family members who, more often than not are the source of our pathologies, not the cure for them.
Take Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their common approach at your door is to play on your fears and your hopes by tickling your interest with the delightful picture of eternal life reunited with your loved ones in an ideally lovely and peaceful Kingdom of God - never mind that your idea of the Kingdom of God and their idea of the Kingdom of God might be at odds.
“Wouldn’t you like to enjoy eternal happiness with your loved ones in the company of Jehovah God?”
The question is designed with a deliberate hook to draw out a positive response by making people feel stupid or ashamed to answer “No.” The question is designed to appeal to an assumed minimum level of rationality - very minimum, in my opinion.
Now, I have great sympathy with Jehovah’s Witnesses, born from a former close - very close - association. But from the
start I know full well that I am eccentric, I am not nearly as rational as many people think is the conventional baseline of our kind, plus I have little fear of looking or feeling stupid by coughing up a negative response, especially since I am already hip to their strategy. So I deflate their approach immediately, pre-empting their theological argument by agreeing with them that 1) Yes, Mankind, not God, is wholly responsible for the woes of the world, including the suffering of innocents. But then, 2) No, I would NOT like to liveforever, and, 3) CERTAINLY NOT in the company of family members who, more often than not are the source of our pathologies and problems, not the salve for them. (So much for American conservatives’ eulogies to “traditional family values.”)
The prospect of living forever is quite frightening because I foresee it too quickly becoming a living hell with no escape - a trap, or prison more than a reward. To begin with, let’s distinguish between living forever and living eternally. Living forever means living through an endless duration of time. And the obvious problem with it is that if we were sentenced to unending life then we might soon come to beg for annihilation or death (not the same things) out of sheer fatigue or boredom. But nothing, not even suicide, would deliver us from that hell. Yikes!
Next, eternal life - the prospect of which I feel more positive towards - is difficult for most people to understand first because they confuse it with living forever, and secondly because they fail to understand the nature of eternity. Eternity means timelessness. No time. Absence of time. Time doesn’t exist any more, so that eternal life does not mean anything at all like a long duration of life. It describes a hardly imaginable state of being - maybe a condition not properly called “life”or “living” at all. (This confusion is demonstrated whenever people speculate about time before the Big Bang, or time before the Creation. By definition, there was no time before either because time did not exist without created space.)
I don’t feel overly sad at news of the passings of these extremely old, longevity-record-holders. First, because I did not personally know them, of course. But, second, because I feel the wisdom of an observation like “Death grows friendlier as we grow older,” and I know that they themselves are probably quite tired. They know their deaths are coming and they accept it and, often, they are tired - tired of age and of illness - to the degree that they welcome dying, strange as it may sound. It is especially true in the deaths of people, young or old, who succumb to illness and disease after long and sometimes arduous struggles. What doesmake me sad is to see this disposition in a young person, like a teenager, so exhausted from years of fighting chronic, terminal illness that they are tired of life already, so young. They have the disposition of a 110-year-old, and if it was a 110-year-old saying they were tired of living I would understand better and feel differently about it. But not in a child.
There are two ways to live forever. One is to live through an unending duration of time and to age continually throughout it. That means getting older and older and feebler and feebler as you age. Terrible! You would be a healthy, active person for the first sixty years and an invalid for the rest of time. Or, maybe you would age continually throughout it but still keep your mental and physical health. I try to imagine what that would be like. What would a 1,000 or 10,000-year-old person look like? What would she feel like?
Another is to live through an unending duration of time but with a body, or in a condition unchanging. I think this is usually what people imagine when they imagine eternal life in heaven. Would you liveforever with the body, health, energy and libido of a 25-year-old? Or as a middle aged person? Or what? Would you recognize your parents and your children? Would they recognize you? How would you appear to each other? A Jehovah’s Witnesses’ invitation to eternal life would have to be clear on these points, I’m sure, if they want to get in my door.
* Former Sailor Bill stone passed away at age 108-years on January 10, 2009. Former airman Henry Allingham died July 18th, followed by infantry veteran Harry Patch on July 25th aged 111-years, thus severing Britain’s direct lineage with that conflict.