Life as a practice session? I mean, that’s one way to utterly trivialize it. And here’s another; because what’s on offer from the Silicon Valley apostles of immortality really comes down to a secular version of the same thing. Even if for them you stay in your body instead of evaporating into some kind of disembodied state.
And so, we have Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel saying – and I quote – “If people think they’re going to die, it’s demotivating.” There’s more! “The idea of immortality,” he says, “is motivational”. As one of those people absurd enough to imagine she’s going to die, I find Thiel’s glibness astonishing. He reduces human existence to the language of corporate management, to motivational path.
He seems to think our lives are invalidated by the fact that we’ll die, and he assumes that life is a matter of what else but metrics; its value determined by something as easy to calculate as years. In Thiel’s world, what gets us up in the morning is not the enjoyment of the life we’re actually living, but the hope that we’ll go on getting up in the morning forever.
I for one can think of few things more depressing. Thiel’s dream is my nightmare. And if you think about it a moment, it might turn out to be yours too.
Let’s leave aside practical considerations, like who can possibly afford to live forever. I mean, I guess that might be less of a consideration if you are a billionaire, but only slightly less, because any number of billions of dollars is still barely a drop in the financial ocean of eternity.
Instead, I’d ask you to think what it might mean to live forever, what it would be like to just keep on going, like that pink toy rabbit in the old commercial for batteries, banging away on its tin drum. And in fact, we do have some idea of what it would be like. It’s there in the way we talk.
When we say we sat through a lecture that just went on and on like it would never end, or we complain of incessant chatter, or describe a bad movie as interminable. Consciously or not, we realize that without an end, life would become a flat, featureless expanse: just one thing after another, literally ad infinitum.
Endlessness would suck the vitality out of existence, eviscerate it of meaning. It would leave us with that sense of tedium and pointlessness that’s the hallmark of chronic depression.
So the last thing I’d ever want is to never die. I have zero desire to live forever, because immortality is not something devoutly to be wished for, on the contrary: it’s a curse. Think of Greek myth, where Sisyphus is forever rolling his boulder uphill, never to reach the top. Or of ghost and vampire stories, where the walking dead are condemned to spectral half lives without end.
Or even of a comic book hero like Superman, destined never to have a regular Clark Kent life; never to live, love and die like a normal human being. We need endings because the most basic ending of all is built into us: our ability to die, our mortality, is a defining part of what it is to be human.
We are finite beings within infinity, and if we are alive to this, it sharpens our appreciation of the fact that we exist, gives new depth to the idea of life as a journey.
So, my mortality does not negate meaning, it creates meaning. It’s what wakes me up to life. It’s what says, “Appreciate it! Don’t take it for granted! Write the next book! Laugh with your friends! Go explore! Eat another dozen oysters!” Because it’s not how long I live that matters; it’s how I live, and I intend to do it well – to the end.