What is this joie de vivre that they talk about nowadays? Our hunger for God, our thirst of immortality, of survival, will always stifle in us this pitiful enjoyment of the life that passes and abides not. It is the frenzied love of life, the love that would have life to be unending, that most often urges us to long for death. “If it is true that I am to die utterly,” we say to ourselves, “then once I am annihilated the world has ended so far as I am concerned—it is finished. Why, then, should it not end forthwith, so that no new consciousnesses, doomed to suffer the tormenting illusion of a transient and apparential existence may come into being? If, the illusion of living being shattered, living for the mere sake of living or for the sake of others who are likewise doomed to die, does not satisfy the soul, what is the good of living? Our best remedy is death.” And thus it is that we chant the praises of the never-ending rest because of our dread of it and speak of liberating death.
…And they come seeking to deceive us with a deceit of deceits, telling us that nothing is lost, that everything is transformed, shifts and changes, that not the least particle of matter is annihilated, not the least impulse of energy is lost, and there are some who pretend to console us with this! Futile consolation! It is not my matter or my energy that is the cause of my disquiet, for they are not mine if I myself am not mine—that is, if I am not eternal. No, my longing is not to be submerged in the vast All, in an infinite and eternal Matter or Energy or in God; not to be possessed by God, but to possess Him, to become myself God, yet without ceasing to be I myself, I who am now speaking to you. Tricks of monism avail us nothing; we crave the substance and not the shadow of immortality.
— Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life
That man desires immortality is understandable, but were it not for the influence of the Christian religion, it should never have assumed such a disproportionately large share of our attention. Instead of being a fine reflection, a noble fancy, lying in the poetic realm between fiction and fact, it has become a deadly earnest matter, and in the case of monks, the thought of death, or life after it, has become the main occupation of this life.
…Many people have substituted for this personal immortality, immortality of other kinds, much more convincing—the immortality of the race, and the immortality of work and influence. It is sufficient that when we die, the work we leave behind us continues to influence others and play a part however small, in the life of the community in which we live. We can pluck the flower and throw its petals to the ground and yet its subtle fragrance remains in the air. It is a better, more reasonable, and more unselfish kind of immortality. In this very real sense, may say that Louis Pasteur, Luther Burbank and Thomas Edison are still living among us. What if their bodies are dead, since “body” is nothing but an abstract generalization for a constantly changing combination of chemical constituents! Man begins to see his own life as a drop in an ever flowing river and is glad to contribute his part to the great stream of life. If he were only a little less selfish, he should be quite contented with that.
— Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
However, in an entirely friendly spirit, I would like to take issue with Alan Harrington’s fascinating article “The Immortalist” (May 1969), on the desirability of abolishing death, and the possibility of doing so through medical techniques.
The immortalization of any biological individual runs into the same logistic problems as building indefinitely high skyscrapers: the lower floors are increasingly taken up with channels for elevators. It’s called “the law of diminishing returns.” A brain that continues intact for 100, 500, or 1,000 years is increasingly clogged with memories, and becomes like a sheet of paper so covered with writing that no space is left for any visible or intelligible form. Thus a human being 500 years old would be as inert as a turtle of the same age.
Consider the following points: (a) Death is not a sickness or disease; it is an event as natural and as healthy as childbirth or as the falling of leaves in the autumn. (b) As the “natural childbirth” obstetricians are training women to experience the pains of labor as erotic tensions, there is no reason why the “pangs of death” should not be reinterpreted as the ecstasies of liberation from anxiety and overloads of memory and responsibility. (c) Suppose that medical science achieves a method of getting rid of the overload of memories and anxieties: Isn’t this what death accomplishes already? (d) The funk about death is the illusion that you are going to experience everlasting darkness and nothingness as if being buried alive. (e) The “nothingness” after death is the same as the “nothingness” before you were born, and because anything that has happened once can happen again you will happen again as you did before, mercifully freed from the boredom of an overloaded memory.
Along with most of us, Alan Harrington doesn’t see that this “nothingness” before birth and after death is simply the temporal equivalent of, say, the space between stars. Where would stars be without spatial intervals between them? The problem is simply that civilized and brainwashed human beings lack the perception that we are all one Self, marvellously varied and indefinitely extended through time and space with restful intervals. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “it is the silent pause which gives sweetness to the chant.”
— Alan Watts, The Collected Letters of Alan Watts