I’m going to ask you some questions about your life, so I hope you are prepared. I’m going to ask you to imagine a life that would never end; an eternal, but earthly life.
Are you ready to take this seriously?
You won’t be graded.
Why is this important? Because it is the thing that just about everybody wants: immortality. But do we want it because we have carefully considered what it might be like? Or, perhaps because we want to avoid the alternative. I’d bet it is more the latter.
Let’s start with an old Twilight Zone episode called Long Live Walter Jameson. A distinguished and handsome professor at a small college reads to his class from the Civil War diary of an officer who fought in that war, an account so vivid that it seems as though the reader was there himself.
He was. Indeed, he was the officer, 100 years before.
But, without giving away the story, it turns out that Walter Jameson is weary of life and thinks about suicide every day. He has seen it all and he has done it all in his over 2000 years on the planet, with no end in sight; much like the protagonist in Glen Duncan’s recent novel The Last Werewolf.
The author describes a creature who finds life increasingly empty and is thinking of ending it well before he reaches the werewolf life expectancy of about 400 years.
Early on in the book, the werewolf talks about the dilemma of living a long time:
Naturally one sets oneself challenges — Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t’ai chi — but that only addresses the problem of Time. The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger… One by one I’ve exhausted all the modes: hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig. My mechanism’s worn out. I don’t have what it takes. I still have feelings but I’m sick of having them. Which is another feeling I’m sick of having. I just… don’t want any more life.
But these creatures have the hardship of having to watch everyone else age and die while they stay youthful, so let’s take that problem off the table. Maybe, if they are no longer at risk of suffering the loss of any loved ones, these care-worn life forms would be a bit more chipper about living pretty near forever.
So let’s imagine a world in which everyone lives eternally; no one ages or becomes infirm.
What could be better?
Well, I guess no one would be using the excuse any more, “I don’t have enough time!” You could see everything worth seeing on the grandest possible world tour. And be a “doctor, lawyer, and an Indian chief” at various different moments along the endless journey.
But with all the time in the world, would there be any urgency to life? You could always do tomorrow the thing you thought to do today; or do it next year, or in 1000 years. No more bucket lists, because there would be no more bucket.
The idea of “wasting time,” would disappear. After all, if there is always more of it, time would be hard to waste. Each day would count for less in a world without end than in a world with one.
You could smoke and drink all you want. No need to be worried about lethal sexually transmitted disease, so casual sex might be a little more care free.
And food, wow! Eat as much as you like of whatever you like. No need to work-out for the purpose of increasing your life expectancy, so I guess there would be more obese people. Life would be a little like being a kid in a candy store, so long as you had enough money to buy the candy.
Oh, yes, money. You would still have to make it; forever, or at least until you had enough that your investments could last for a very long time. For most, that would mean no retirement and more competition between the generations for jobs. The oldies would not willingly stand aside for youth to take their places on the career ladder.
Everyone would have to keep learning, keep going to school, just to keep up with all the new ideas, discoveries, and technologies. Not a bad thing, but a good deal of effort.
You’d have to adjust throughout your life to changing values, changing politics, and (one hopes) an increase in your own level of wisdom based on what you’d seen and done. Would this marginalize you?
Even if you look 27, a few thousand years experience will probably reduce what you have in common with those who really are 27. No, I’m not just talking about liking different songs, but something having to do with maturity. How would someone who had known George Washington personally relate to a beautiful young thing who had only just read about him?
Then there is sex. Assuming eternal youth and perpetual fertility (and imagining a planet that could handle many more people than ours) might everyone be “on the make” — a kind of endless “Dating Game?” Talk about the potential for robbing the cradle! Would society react with the shock and disapproval it does today when a 50-year-old man marries a teenage girl? How about a 5000-year-old man marrying one who is only 50?
Speaking of the number 50, if increased longevity (compared to our ancestors) is one of the reasons for our 50/50 chance of divorce, might marriage be under a bit more pressure if lives never ended? I imagine that divorce would be the rule and not the exception. Surely, the marriage vow “’til death us do part,” where death is AWOL, would be a longer haul than most could take.
Concern for our children and the next generation is greater now than it would be in a world of eternal life. Indeed, the urge to have offspring is thought to be nature’s way of ensuring that the planet will still be populated with our genes. What would happen if procreation was no longer necessary to ensure that others who look and talk like us walk around the planet? Not just those who look like us, but are us!
And if there were less need to produce children, would we become more self-interested, less preoccupied not only with their invulnerable lives, but also the lives of others? Might we become even more concerned with appearance and success and whatever amusement we are able to find? Surely, we would be forever bumping into our great-great-grandchildren, distant cousins, great-great grandparents, and so forth. Family relationships would doubtless be altered and probably less meaningful.
How might an adult child relate to a parent who appeared to be his age-equivalent? Authority would need to depend upon something other than hard-won gray hair.
Eternity, of course, wouldn’t prevent disappointment, broken hearts, friends who move away or reject us, or business failures. We would still learn some of the things that loss teaches us — the value of those things that are impermanent — if not from the ultimate impermanence: death.
We love a rose, it is said, because we know that its beauty is temporary. If that is true, how would the love between an immortal man and woman change?
Looking to Greek mythology, we see that the immortals (Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, and so forth) act a bit like children. They seem to have no need to work and instead spend their time drinking ambrosia and nursing petty jealousies, in a hyper-sexualized existence that intrudes disruptively on human life to the point of fathering human offspring with multiple mates and taking sides when mortals wage war.
More close to our time, the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, showed similarly self-involved and immature behavior in the eternal creatures of “The Q Continuum.” Of course, both the Greek gods and the “Q” are death-less and all-powerful. Perhaps then there is something in our mortal state that, when coupled with our limited power causes us to take seriously our time, our actions, and our responsibilities.
Would life lose its gravitas if it was endless, the sense that what we do with it is important? Leon Kass has suggested that, without death, there can be no courage; without death there can be nothing more important than life itself — nothing for which one would choose to sacrifice one’s life.
Or, to put it less philosophically, where would the thrill of a roller coaster ride come from if you sensed absolutely no physical danger to yourself or your companion?
What is it about the lives we live everyday that makes for growth, maturity, and wisdom?
What part of wisdom comes from observing your bodily transformation from the clumsy weakness of early youth to the deft mastery and strength of your 20s and 30s and then the road back again, remembering what you used to be able to do but can no longer accomplish as the days grow short.
Isn’t the source of wisdom, in part, the necessity of making decisions that can have almost irreversible consequences? We must pick a mate wisely because we expect to live the best of life with that person during the small window of time when a family is possible; the same is true for the choice of what to study in school and what career path to follow. We must act quickly and wisely, before life’s curtain comes down.
The ticking clock makes us take all these things seriously. With no clock, what then? An infinite number of relationship choices and do-overs, in love and in work. Nearly every choice loses significance in a world of immortals. And the consequence of fewer permanent consequences? Lives of more froth, less weight.
Literature and art would be transformed in a world without illness — without doctors, nurses, and hospitals; without the daily drama of death nearby. Perhaps science fiction would then imagine a world like ours, where we are all in transit, with the troubles (but also the seriousness) that grows out of the fragile bodies we inhabit.
Would you really want to live for eternity? It’s true, you wouldn’t be worried about dying and losing those you love, your hair, your looks, your flexibility, your chances. But then, you’d no longer really be human and what you’d be living wouldn’t be human life as we know it now.
In some things, too much can be as much a problem as too little.
It is a cliché, but death gives life meaning and makes our lives what they are. Does this mean we should all gratefully give up hoping for eternal youth? I doubt that we will. That wish, too, is what makes us human.
No matter the matter, the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. If eternity is too long and life is too short, what then?
Edna St. Vincent Millay put it this way in her 1920 poem First Fig:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!
The top image is the Animated Version of User Lucien Gray by Mushii. The following photo is called Vampire or Werewolf? by David de la Luz. Next comes Drinking Bacchus (The God of Wine) by Guido Reni. The last reproduction is the Inside Cover of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as Published by Three Siren Press in 1931, picture by Ericpenner. Dorian Gray was a fictional character who did not age, although his portrait reflected his increasing moral corruption. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
I think my collection of classical recordings could keep me occupied more or less forever.
As a historian, I seek to explore life in past ages. But what if I could actually have lived in those ages, without, for example, the danger of ending up on the wrong end of someone’s spear. The thought is too enticing to resist.
A good point. Would one eventually tire of both the history and the records? Isn’t history “as it is lived,” less remarkable than when we view it at a distance; just more of what we think of as “everyday life?” Still, I’m sure that the opportunity to find out would be almost impossible to resist, as would a time machine to take one back to a period in which one had not lived.