If you could, would you live forever?
Someone asked the question at a recent reunion of high school and college classmates. We were remembering those who weren’t there: the one who died from brain cancer at 45, another who succumbed in his mid 50s to complications from AIDS, and the most recent, a close friend of mine for over 40 years, who passed away last year after a losing battle with melanoma.
“A spot on my shoulder, and they missed it,” he told me with no sense of bitterness shortly before he died. “Well, you win some and you lose some.”
We played in a rock and roll band together in college. I remember attending the funeral of his father, who also died in his early 60s. My friend greeted me at his house following the service. There were tears in his eyes. “He was too young to die,” he said. “You’re supposed to live to eighty at least.”
If you could, would you live forever?
Forty-five years of medical progress later, a physician still misses a spot. Shit happens. We still die, some too soon, some too late. A former colleague once related the story of her mother and father, who were in a nursing home together in their late 90s and didn’t always recognize each other.
“I want to die, but they won’t let me,” her father lamented one day during a visit. He had to wait until he was 104.
Medical technology is a marvelous thing and a blessing to those of us lucky enough to live in the modern age. But plans to conquer death through regenerative medicine, or to one day download the cognitive self into machines that outlive the body, are troubling. There is something unsettling about a life that could go on and on. When days are numbered, life grows sweet, the moments more precious. A life with no limits, with no boundaries – what would it possibly mean?
To be human is to be mortal. To pursue knowledge and extend imagination and desire through science and technology is to be human as well. While in graduate school, I became enamored with the philosophy of technological determinism, the view that we are destined by
necessity to evolve into “sentient machines” and leave this earth to populate the galaxies, fueled by the ever forward thrust of human ingenuity and “le technique.” The idea of limits, of conserving a hidebound past where God was in the heavens and man was confined on Earth to sweat out his allotment of years, seemed puny and defeatist.
We were God, and we might as well get on with the task of creating the world in our image.
Things change. As an empirical hypothesis, technological determinism may well prove true, but it no longer holds my imagination, it no longer informs my values or teaches me how to live my life. Today, I am more inclined to subscribe to the Buddhist tradition, where Death is the co-pilot. He’s sitting next to you as you speed hell-bent down the highway of life, reminding you that this moment, this day, is all you have. Fame, fortune, they count for nothing. In a split second, everything can change. You live fully – you are only awake – when you are also fully aware of the illusion of permanency.
We were under no illusions when a small group of us gathered to share a fine meal and wine and gazed out at the sun setting over the golden hills north of Santa Barbara. Some good friends were gone, and before the next reunion others might be gone as well. We talked about what we hoped to be doing in ten years, and to a person, each of us began with the preface, “I just want to be alive and healthy.”
Mortality shapes and defines us. It sets the boundaries of human meaning, out of which hope arises. Life may go on and on, but we won’t. And in the end, that’s not a bad thing.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.