Here is the full transcript of author Lesley Hazleton’s TEDx Talk: What’s Wrong With Dying? at TEDxSeattle conference.
Lesley Hazleton – Author
So, I know most people are terrified of death, but I’m terrified of cocktail parties. I’m not much good at the usual social chatter, so if you put a couple of drinks inside me, there’s no knowing what I might come out with.
Like what happened at one such event, halfway into a second martini. I got into a conversation with an ardent fan of the “end to aging” movement – you know, the vision of a radically enhanced life span big with Silicon Valley billionaires who think they should never die.
One of them was actually boasting at the time that he was taking 150 nutritional supplements a day to ward off death – an activity that must have consumed the better part of an hour, let alone the lining of a stomach. The guy I was talking with didn’t seem to think there was anything weird about this. He was about half my age – less than half, in fact.
As his death was clearly more of an imminent reality for me than for him, he made the mistake of assuming that I’d be living in mortal fear of it. He seemed quite shocked that I wasn’t. In fact, he seemed to take my equanimity of the prospect as an admission of some kind of failure on my part. “How can you accept limits that don’t have to be there?” he said, “Biotechnology could mean an end to aging; it could even mean an end to death itself.” And that’s when it came out.
“But what’s wrong with dying?” I said. The question startled him into silence, and the truth is it startled me too. I’d never thought to ask this specific question before. I never put it quite so bluntly, but now that it was out there – hovering in the alcoholic fumes between us – it seemed to cut to the heart of the matter because it’s taken for granted that we’re all afraid of death.
Ask people if they are – and I have asked, though not usually at parties – and most would say, “Yes, of course!” and look like they’d rather be anywhere but in the same room as you.
There was psychologist William James, who called death “the evil background,” and “the worm at the core of human aspirations to happiness.” Or with poet Philip Larkin, who was very good at worms at the core of things and wrote of lying awake in terror of what he called the “total emptiness forever”.
But it turns out, I’m as bad at things taken for granted as I am at cocktail parties. When something seems so obvious it’s beyond question, that’s when I tend to start questioning; because what we take for granted may really be what we haven’t taken the time to think through.
I guess you could say I haven’t had much option but to think through the matter of my own death since I’ve come pretty close to it a number of times. In the Middle-East, I was shot at on a journalistic assignment, bombed as a civilian, threatened by right-wing thugs.
But the closest I’ve come was entirely my own doing. I lost control of a car on turn three of a race track in the American Midwest, and with what seemed immense slowness rolled over, and over, and – yes – over again. And as I rolled, a single sentence reverberated in my mind, like some kind of mantra. “This”, I kept thinking, “is a really stupid way to die.”
My first reaction when the car came to a stop and I found myself still alive was amazement, followed by a surge of gratitude to whoever it was who invented the crash helmet. So, it only occurred to me later to ask, “What exactly would have been so stupid about dying this way?” I mean, what might I consider an intelligent way to die? \
Why was I even asking such a question in the first place? To which my only answer was: intellectual vanity. I mean, surely I was far too intelligent to die stupidly. It seems that not only is my life immensely significant to me, but so too is my death – even though if I was dead, I wouldn’t be around to appreciate the significance of that fact.
In fact, I wouldn’t be around to appreciate anything at all, which makes it a good thing. I’m not religious; because then, apparently, I would be around in something called “the afterlife”. And this is, to put it mildly, a sobering thought to live with; since the idea is not only that you never really die, but that what you do in this life determines your fate in a hypothetical next one.
In other words, the life you’re actually living has no intrinsic value in and of itself; or actually, not in other words but in the words of motivational mega-pastor Rick Warren, he of The Purpose Driven Life: “Earth,” he says – and I’m not making this up – “Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity.”
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.