Death Avoidance

Will we be there when we die? (Photo courtesy of Darren MacLean, http://www.madonionsdesign.co.uk)

By Anthony O. Alcantara

Exercising is one of the best ways I know to delay the onset of death.

That’s what I thought. It turned out that it could also quicken the process. Just after my Aikido practice recently, I felt some very strong and prolonged palpitations. I was just waiting to drop dead anytime, especially since no relaxation or visualization technique slowed down my heart.

Fortunately, I managed to get myself to a hospital while clutching my chest. I later learned it was atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes fast and chaotic heart beats.

In any case, I survived. The doctor said it’s curable, and that it can be controlled so I can go on with my usual activities. But at that time when I was at the emergency room, I thought death was so close to me. What if my heart, out of frustration and confusion, just said, “OK, I give up. I’m getting tired of this chaotic pumping. I’ll just stop, OK?”

As I lay there at the hospital, I also thought about my wife and daughter. It was my first time to be confined in a hospital. Eventually, after three hours of palpitations and a little rest, I began to read on my Kindle.

And, of all topics, I read about immortality. Immortality! There I was close to death and reading about how to live forever. It was an e-book titled Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization by Stephen Cave, a philosopher and writer.

Cave’s thesis is this: Mankind’s quest for immortality made civilization possible. In other words, our quest for immortality is the main impetus for progress.

Cave outlines four main immortality narratives that most people follow as they go about doing their business of living. Most of us are quite familiar with them.

  1. “Staying Alive” narrative. We all dream of living forever physically. A century ago, life expectancy was at 40. Now people in developed countries can expect to reach 80. Maybe it’s just an engineering problem. Soon enough, with advancements in nutrition and biotechnology, we can evolve into a planarian flatworm, which I learned can live indefinitely under certain conditions.
  2. “Resurrection” narrative. This is the narrative supported by Christians. We all die physically, but we will also live again using the same old bodies, but much improved and imperishable.
  3. “Soul” narrative. It was first espoused by the Greeks. Plato believed in the soul, that immaterial, spiritual stuff that survives after our death. Christians came to believe in this, too, when the “Resurrection” narrative didn’t pan out as quickly as they hoped.
  4. “Legacy” narrative. This involves fame, glory, cultural artefacts, children. Think about Achilles and Alexander the Great. They sought to live forever by seeking glory and, unfortunately, much bloodshed.

But aside from these seemingly inadequate narratives, Cave has another important point to make: that there is a fifth narrative popping in and out of history. He calls it the “Wisdom” narrative. He believes it’s becoming more popular these days.

Of course, it’s his own concoction. And if I were to put a name to my own narrative, I would have called it something like that, too. That’s how to market your ideas – give it a good, even if seemingly self-serving, name.

Cave laid out a list of well-thought arguments against the four narratives. For example, even if we find the secret to remain physically alive forever, we may still get ourselves killed by a falling coconut. Our bodies would still be ugly and sickly if we rise from the dead. Not a comforting thought. The soul may lack the consciousness of the person to which it belongs. Our legacy may not have any meaning at all if we consider eternity. Most people don’t even know the names of their great grandparents.

The arguments, of course, don’t lend themselves to exhaustive explanation in a short blog post. And yet, Cave fails to consider the possibilities of human progress. There are mysteries that, with time and effort and luck, can be solved.

Take for example the brain. Recent findings about the connectome – a new scientific term that refers to the connections between the billions of neurons in the brain – can shed light on consciousness, intelligence, personality, perhaps even the soul. It opens up a new field of mysteries. And that’s only one area of unconquered intellectual terrain.

If Cave doesn’t have all the answers to the mysteries and the unknowns in our world, then dismissing all the four narratives as hogwash is not convincing at all. I know there are limits to the four narratives. For sure, some have caused unspeakable evil. But still, there is good that can emanate from them.

To illustrate the “Wisdom” narrative, let me quote from the Epic of Gilgamesh, just as Cave did in his book. This is what the barmaid told Gilgamesh, who wandered aimlessly, looking for the secret to immortality:

“The life that you seek you never will find:
when the gods created mankind,
death they dispensed to mankind,
life they kept for themselves.
 
But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
enjoy yourself always by day and by night!
make merry each day,
dance and play day and night!
 
Let your clothes be clean,
let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!
gaze on the child who holds your hand,
let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!”
 

Cave said, “Wisdom, therefore, meant finding a way to accept and live with mortality.”

Imagine living forever. Imagine eternity right in front of you. Would you be able to act sensibly if you knew that no matter what you did, you would go on and on and on?

That’s just one thing to consider.

Like Cave, I admire the wisdom contained in some of the books of the Old Testament. My favorite is Ecclesiastes. Here’s a particular passage I like:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” – Ecclesiastes 9:11

I like Ecclesiastes even more than the Gospels.

Epicurus, one of my favourite Stoics and which Cave quotes in his book, also has some interesting thoughts:

“While we are, death is not; when death is come, we are not. Death is thus of no concern either to the living or to the dead. For it is not with the living, and the dead do not exist.”

Cave proposes three virtues that will help us cope with the seeming gloom of mortality: selflessness, living in the present moment or mindfulness, and gratitude.

These are all ideas we know and practice to some extent. They also blend well with the other narratives. And we don’t have to cling to one particular narrative, or even the “Wisdom” narrative, just to benefit from these virtues.

While I don’t agree with Cave about branding the four narratives as “unnecessary”, I like the research and the skilful weaving of a coherent story of this quest for immortality.

I highly recommend his book, if only to open your minds to ideas about immortality that you may not have considered before.

I believe we should all avoid death as much as possible. But not to the extent that we avoid life as well.

So here’s a big high five for life!

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