Posted: Sat, May 18, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension
by Joe Bardin
When I was in my early teens, my grandmother Miriam died. She had been old all my life, comfortably bed-ridden for the most part, so that for a good decade she seemed to me immortal, never getting any worse. What she loved most was reading anyway. When her eyesight failed, she transitioned to books on tape, 24 cassettes to a case, borrowed from the local library, their green plastic containers stacked on a bedside table in bulk quantities of Trollope, Herodotus, P.G. Wodehouse and on and on.
When she came to visit, ensconced in a bedroom where she would remain for the duration, her trove of books on tape within reach, I would sit and listen to her muse on literature, philosophy and classics, all of it passing well over my head. Occasionally, I would nod knowingly and feel very grown up and she was generous enough to never call me on it. Once, she had me push the door closed and she led us in a game of ESP in which we took turns wordlessly broadcasting and receiving visual images back and forth. I never saw much more than spots in front of my eyes. But again, she never hassled me.
She chewed those sticky Juju bean candies. Have I made her real enough? Because she was real.
At the funeral, in a prosaically flat and new cemetery somewhere in suburban Maryland, she suddenly was not real, and I felt pissed about it. I was angry that death had taken Miriam and turned her into a thing in a casket. But there was no one to be angry with. My mother, Miriam’s daughter, uncomfortable with showing her emotion in any case, wore that somber, distracted expression less practiced Jews wear when they are challenged to get the recipe of rituals right. Many say, with considerable cultural pride, that this is the genius of it all; the ritual takes your mind off things.
I looked around for someone else with whom to share my anger at the loss of Miriam, but the faces I encountered were dutifully blank. The strongest feeling shared by the circle of relatives and friends attending was a supportive sense of understanding, and the essence of that understanding was agreement. Agreement, that there was nothing to be angry about, nothing to resist. That this is the way it is. In effect, that there was nothing wrong.
I was confused. How could Miriam dying not be wrong? Why had she undergone several medical procedures just recently if it didn’t matter. Why did we all care about the outcomes of these procedures, until they all failed? Only to frame the failure now as right and proper and natural and acceptable.
It seemed like cheating to me. My little sister had a game she used to play with Miriam when she was five or six, her own approximation of chess, called chest, played with cards, rather than chessmen. My sister never lost a game of chest, because whenever she was about to, she changed the values of the cards on the fly, always in her favor. Miriam used to fume about it, but the absurdity seemed perfectly reasonable to my little sister.
Many of the same people who attended Miriam’s funeral attended a funeral reception a few years later. A young man from our community had been killed in military service in Israel, shot in an ambush on the Lebanese border. Shock pervaded the day. The mother, pale with grief, greeted guests to her house, receiving the inadequate condolences of those awed by her loss. He wasn’t just young, in his mid twenties. He was a sweetheart. A talent. A seeker. A person of depth and promise. He left behind poems and watercolors.
He was six years older than me, almost a generation in kid-years. But in one of my very earliest memories, I am playing army men with him on the cool tile of a Jerusalem apartment. That was when both our families lived there. We were apparently ageless at that age.
This death left scars. This death altered people’s politics and radicalized their metaphysics. Middle class, East Coast college-educated, skeptical bare-headed Jews became mystics. They had out of body experiences. They knew with certainty they would see him again. On the other side. This death was too terrible to take issue with. Instead, the issue was how to absolve death of its finality, of its careless, cruel, endless actuality.
Death, the destroyer. The murderer. The separator. The degrader. The trivializer of all personal passion and endeavor. Death, the final enemy. There is so much to hate death for, but we don’t do it. The psychology is plain enough; we deny death’s true totality, its absolute evil of annihilation to spare ourselves an unbearable reckoning with loss. But in sparing ourselves, we spare death. In the language of recent economic crises, death is too big to fail. We have too much invested in it to truly hold it accountable.
We are all implicated in this seemingly obligatory farce, not just so-called believers with their heavens of one sort or another. Non-believers find their afterlives in other forms such as: their works of one sort or another, their country, their family, human progress, universal consciousness, etc. But of course, while those entities might go on for a time, the dead who contributed to them are all too absent.
To be fair, our own evolutionary path as a species has put us in an impossible position. We developed the emotional and intellectual capacity to perceive a life beyond death, or at least to long for it, thousands of years before we could do anything about it. This longing for immortality is apparent in virtually every ancient tradition.
In the Old Testament book of Genesis, a figure named Melchizedek is said to have “no beginning or ending of days.” (Seems like a story line worth following up on, but he’s hardly heard from again.) Suggestions of immortality surface in relation to other figures of the Jewish tradition like Enoch, Moses and Elijah.
In the New Testament, references to immortality are aplenty. To cite just two, both from the King James version:
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,
and this mortal shall have put on immortality,
then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
- Corinthians 15:54:
Who will render to every man according to his deeds:
to them who by patient continuance in well doing
seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.
- Romans 2:6-7
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient poem from Mesopotamia, dated to 2000 BC and earlier, immortality is a central concern. When Gilgamesh’s companion, Enkidu dies, his distress sends him on a quest for immortality, which ultimately is unsuccessful. Along the way, he is told:
“The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”
Essentially, we have been parroting this position in one form or another ever since. And what option did we have? Evolution, including human evolution, has been an engine driven by death. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, pondering the massive number of gooseneck barnacle larvae that are destroyed out at sea in the process of one growing to maturity, writes:
“What kind of world is this anyway? Why not make fewer barnacle larvae and give them a decent chance? Are we dealing in life, or in death?” On the following page she answers her own question: “The faster death goes, the faster evolution goes.”
What does one do in the face of such a gruesome, all-encompassing death machine? At best, we fight the good fight, and lose. As Dylan Thomas famously exhorted us:
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light/ Though wise men at their end know dark is right.”
Human ancestry is now believed to stretch back over 3 million years. It seems safe to conjecture that for the majority of those years, our ancestors were not developed enough to be pre-occupied with the existential problem of their own mortality, beyond the urge to fill their bellies and reproduce.
But some time in the last five to ten thousand years perhaps, a blink of the eye by evolutionary standards, we started to envision immortality in one form or another. This probably occurred in parallel with the development of more in-depth social connections, an advancement that empowered people to improve their survival through more closely knitted communities. Now when people died, instead of it merely thinning the herd, others started to miss them, just as Gilgamesh missed Enkidu. Songs were sung, poems were written. And the longing to transcend that separation began.
Naturally, the same consciousness that evolved the ability to envision immortality and long for it, had to develop ways to distort the devastating reality of its absence. And we have been brilliant at it, conjuring afterlives to match every attitude, from the godly and pious, to the lucrative, the folksy and the pornographic. We’ve envisioned harps and angels, streets of gold and pliable virgins luxuriating beside sensually flowing streams.
Over time, we have gotten so adept at denying death that we hardly seem to hate it at all. On the contrary, we take issue with the possibility of not dying. Clerics argue that death is God’s will and the proper and natural way of things, and well they might, considering that without it, they’ll be as obsolete as the beeper when cell phones arrived on the scene.
But apologists for death are by no means limited to any church. The prevailing intellectual argument is typically some variation on the following: death makes life more precious. By limiting our time here, we are compelled to value every single moment.
This is apparently why it ultimately sucks to be a vampire, no matter how fabulous the accoutrement. It’s all that damned time on your hands. Dare we say, dead time.
In his essay, “The Self-Defeating Fantasy, (The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans)”, Eric S. Rabbin summarizes this position:
“When we put on incorruption, we are all changed: we are changed into ideals, into endless repetitions, into sterile vampires, childless angels, works of art, computer chips. . . In the process we lose our very selves.”
How far the intellect has strayed from physicality. Where does the loss truly lie? Biological immortality would mean Mr. Rabbin himself need not experience the excruciating suffering of his own demise. And if that is not compelling enough, it would mean that someone he loved and who loved and depended on him—perhaps a daughter, a son—wouldn’t have to suffer his loss. And the same for you, the reader, and for everyone.
But we’ve had to live with death so long that the mind has bent to accommodate it. Boredom, disappointment, and above all, the loss of our humanity—these are the monsters the mapmakers have used to demark the unknown of immortality. Don’t go there, even if you could. You won’t like it. You need death, it makes life worth living.
During a 14-month period beginning in 2005 and peaking in the summer of 2006, a series of random shooting attacks occurred in the Phoenix metro area. In all, six people were murdered and another 19 were attacked. Of the approximately five million residents, this writer being one of them, only a tiny fraction was ever actually targeted. The rest of us lived only with the threat of being shot randomly on the street. If death indeed seasons life, then this ought to have been an especially spicy time in Phoenix. Like cayenne pepper, we had just enough of it to taste the heat, without ruining the entire dish. (As opposed to, perhaps, a Hutu genocide or the killing fields of Cambodia.)
Needless to say, it wasn’t so. Anxiety, fear, and social withdrawal were the order of the day. The same can be said of Tel Aviv during an up-cycle of suicide bombing. Again, from personal experience, I can report no renaissance of human development, no explosion of creativity or other evidence of greater aliveness. Just an atmosphere of white-knuckled survival, tense, pressurized, awaiting relief.
Death is all around us—in the news, at the movies, and is particularly vivid in the video games we play. If death really enhanced our lives, we’d be living it up as a society. We’d be seizing the day, and loving one another with all our hearts. But we’re not. As a culture, we are more stressed, depressed and removed from the feeling of our passion for living than ever. The evidence is everywhere, from the boom in mood disorder drugs to our contemporary literature of meticulously delineated misery.
But this argument that death enhances life draws us in regardless. Because whether or not it really holds up under scrutiny, we need it to be true. We need to somehow be better off for dying, because historically that is what we do.
But we have paid a terrible price for this central, seemingly warranted deceit; in repressing our innate, organic revulsion at death, the very same repulsion that has driven us to dream up one alternative to it after another, we have necessarily turned against its opposite –living.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche rails against the life-hating that remains so normative in our culture. In First Part, section 9 of the Oxford edition:
There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom rejection of life must be preached.
Full is the earth of the superfluous; corrupted is life by the all too many. Let one use “eternal life” to lure them away from this life.
… These are the consumptives of the soul: hardly are they born before they begin to die and to long for teachings of weariness and renunciation.
… And even you for whom life is furious labor and distraction: are you not weary of life. Are you not very ripe for the preaching of death.
. . . Everywhere the voice of those who preach death resound: and the earth is full of those to whom death must be preached.
Or else ‘eternal life’: it is the same to me—as long as they pass on to it quickly!
Nietzsche is right; every religion extols life after death as greater than this life, which ultimately boils down to a kind of promotion of death, because that’s the way to get to that better place. But he’s howling into the wind of evolution itself.
It can be argued that without the denial of death’s finality, society could not function. As Dostoyevsky, speaking of faith in the afterlife, notes in The Brothers Karamazov:
“If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up.”
However, big lies, no matter how justified, bring with them big consequences. Emotional authenticity cannot be selectively applied; feeling is an all-or-nothing gambit. Repression of the reality of death brings with it repression of honest emotional expression in general. In society, this is called growing up and it happens to some of us sooner than others, but it always happens.
In the Drama of the Gifted Child: the Search for the True Self, Alice Miller terms it “The Lost World of Feelings.” Speaking of cases she’s observed of the repression of childhood trauma she writes:
“These people have all developed the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can experience feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully . . .”
How many can say they were accepted fully as children? Miller attributes the repression of childhood feeling to the repression parents themselves experienced as children, which they never confronted and in turn act out on their offspring. Whether or not one entirely agrees with this point of view, it’s clear that emotional dis-ease has its roots in childhood, and that those troubles are usually inherited from parents who had emotional problems themselves. But what is the prime mover here? Where does the cycle of emotional trauma start?
In the days of slavery in the American South, one way slaves would cope with the intolerable cruelty they were dealt while working the fields was to “fly away”. If one was being beaten, and the others forced to passively stand by, they might collectively envision themselves leaving their bodies and their torment behind, as they flew freely above the scene of unspeakable suffering. Of course, they remained in the field, subject to the whip of the overseer, but they gained a measure of distance from their pain and humiliation by imagining themselves elsewhere.
As a species, we’ve responded similarly to the slavery of death. Unable to overcome it, we’ve sought to imagine it away. We’ve taken flight from our bodies, from physical feeling, and who could blame us? What real option have we had?
Now biological immortality is seriously being discussed by credible thinkers and scientists. The gerontologist Aubrey de Gray at Cambridge University has made it the stated goal of his research. Scientist Ray Kurzweil has claimed that humans could become immortal in as little as 20 years’ time, albeit through the replacement of vital organs with nanotechnology devices. The writer and futurist Ben Bova has boldly declared: “There are people alive today who will not see death”.
Isn’t it time now, with immortality possibly in sight, and at least the topic of serious discussion, to come clean emotionally, to land back in our bodies and confess that we really don’t want to die and truly, fervently, organically do desire to live?
A few of us have decided the human species already isn’t mortal anymore; that the enlightened person, with the health tools and wellness intelligence available today, the understanding of practical human psychology and the need for change, and most importantly, a community of like-mined people to support them, is potentially endless already. This is not to say we won’t welcome the advances in science as they emerge, only that we feel we already have enough to get started on. This community is called People Unlimited (http://www.peopleunlimitedinc.com).
The reader may well say we are deluding ourselves, but given that the mass of humanity is in delusion about their on-going existence after their death, this seems like a better place to put one’s energy, at least to me.
In his story, “The Immortals”, Borges describes a hellish existence of endless repetition and tedium devoid of all meaning. I can report that being immortal, or at least believing it sincerely, and living it wholeheartedly, is certainly not boring. The repetition, it turns out, is all on the mortality side of the ledger, what with its predetermined ending, and so on.
No wonder the insightful Borges (and so many others) have gotten it so wrong. He was thinking: birth, bar-mitzvah, marriage, family, retirement ad infinitum. That would be torture. But immortality renders those formulaic structures of living obsolete. There’s no script. No footsteps to follow. It’s the furthest thing from boring; it’s the unknown.
I recently watched a National Geographic special on the California Redwoods. These trees can live from 2,500 to 3,500 years and can grow to over 350 feet high in the process. So they have something to tell us about longevity at least, if not immortality. One mystery botanists long struggled with was how these giants were able to draw enough water from their roots all the way up to their canopies hundreds of feet above in order to keep growing. Eventually they discovered that Redwoods don’t just drink from their roots, they drink out of the air as well, from the moisture heavy fog that rolls in off the Pacific.
This explains why otherwise formidable thinkers are often perfectly blind when it comes to thinking immortality. They are still drinking from the roots of past experience, from the long epoch of human mortality, and can find no bridge of reason into this next evolution. The agreement that death is inevitable has been the single universal common denominator of all human experience. It takes what the Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber called a “leap of faith” to start drinking out of the air rather than from one’s roots.
This involves thinking more through feeling, through bodily sensation, and relying less on systemized analysis based on existing paradigms, which can only be relied upon to produce status quo outcomes, in this case death. Another way of saying it is that the moment of revelation must be now, always now.
I recently heard a most remarkable phone message from a fellow immortal, whom I’ll call Pam. It was a saga in three parts, a journey of sensuality, of remorse and of possibility, all compressed into the max time allotment for a cell phone voice mail.
At 68, Pam had begun hormone replacement therapy (HRT), ingesting the hormones she no longer produced herself. She probably should have started HRT much sooner, but having been physically neglected as a very young girl, she’d been sluggish about caring for herself all her life; she was still drinking from that root. Finally, after years of hearing about putting her body first (a central tenet if you’re planning on staying around), she opened a tendril of awareness to now.
But there were consequences. By getting hormonally balanced, she started feeling sexual arousal again, which she had not experienced in years. Remarkably, for the first time in her life, she masturbated. And this was only part one of the message.
In part two, Pam shared that she realized she still had deep feelings of attraction for a woman she’d had a passionate but tumultuous living with years earlier. I had seen these two circle each other wearily for a good decade. To hear Pam confess her deep feelings for Judy (also not her actual name) felt like a fulfillment; like honesty filling an emptiness.
Then Pam’s tone shifted to one of tearful remorse for having misled another woman she’d lived with, to whom she could never truly give her whole heart, because of her love for Judy. I’d witnessed this backup plan stutter along as well. She was not guilt-ridden and going back on her revelation. It was just that her awakening had consequences and she was facing them.
I was privileged to hear this voice mail message because it was sent to my girlfriend and a People Unlimited founder, Bernadeane Brown. Pam could pour herself out to Bernie in this manner because Bernie has done so with Pam. Not once, but many, many times over many, many years. This outpouring of self to self is what breaks down the separation of death. That we die alone is an existential fact; the corollary being that we live alone too, until we die. Immortality ends the loneliness. But it takes an extraordinary and on-going flexing of the musculature of togetherness to break down the cell memory of isolation in the body.
Immortality is no state of perfection. That notion is religion’s way of keeping the carrot out of reach. (Who of us is perfect enough to be immortal? Nobody.
Therefore you’re not ready yet.) But it is a state of perpetual progression, because Nature makes short work of stagnation. When we stop growing, we’re dying more than we are living, until eventually, we just aren’t alive at all. Immortality requires change and growth without end.
Of course, because we’ve been programmed otherwise, this often registers as impossible. Living forever, based on drinking from the roots, is impossible. But so was flight, the Mars Rover, the election of a black president, peace in Northern Ireland and every truly new development.
That Pam could fit her poignant experience into a phone message, and feel so comfortable with the recipient and with herself to do so, is part and parcel of her coming clean with being alive. Immortality makes an honest species of us. We no longer have to suppress our true abhorrence of death, and consequently, deny our body and our appetite for living. Yes immortality demands change, but it’s precisely the change we’ve been longing for, if we’ll just be truthful about it.
Joe Bardin is a writer and anti-death activist. He is Director of Communications for People Unlimited, a community dedicated to physical immortality. His work has appeared in Phoenix Magazine, Dignified Devil, Toad Suck Review, and the Arizona Republic among others. He is a member of the Phoenix-based Theatre Artists Studio. He operates a ghostwriting firm called Relativity Writing.