Why I wouldn’t want to live forever

[This is the draft of a lay sermon given at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., on July 20, 2014]

I remember lying in a hospital bed some 20 years ago after having had a pre-cancerous lobe of my right lung removed.  I got to thinking that this body part was not going to regenerate and that, in fact, the warranty had expired on many of my body parts.

Lying there in the bed, I began to fantasize about what it would be like if this wasn’t so—if I didn’t have to grow old and die, if I could live indefinitely, in vigorous physical and mental health, like  Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain.

life's.clockI imagined having infinite time to do everything I ever had dreamed of doing.  I could read every book I ever wanted to read.  I could study every subject I was ever interested in, and could master every skill I lacked.  I could travel and see every sight I ever wanted to see.  There would be nothing I could not do—that is, if I were capable of doing it and willing to do the work.

I tried to imagine my future life for 50 or 100 or 200 years into the future and, to my surprise, I couldn’t imagine a future that I would like.

 There are only two things I know with certainty about the future.  One is that it will not be like the present.  The other is that I can’t predict it.  I am amazed at the transformations that have taken place during my lifetime.  None of the changes that I expected in my youth have come about, but things that I took for granted have been utterly transformed.  Sometimes it seems to me that the only things that haven’t changed are the structures of economic and political power.

The future brings the challenge of having to adapt to change.  Learning new things is delightful when it is voluntary.  I delight in things new technology makes possible—my blog, for example.  At the same time I am happy to be old and retired, and to be in a position in which I don’t have to master new knowledge and skills that I’m not interested in.

The worst thing about living forever would be that I would leave my friends behind.  If you live long enough—I haven’t yet lived to that point myself—you see all your contemporaries disappear, one by one.  I have made newer and younger friends, but to me, at age 77, a “young” friend is someone in their 40s or 50s.  I don’t really share the experience and thinking of the new generation.

If I lived long enough, not only everyone that I loved and cared about were gone, but everything that I loved and cared about would be no more.

The world during my lifetime has changed in many ways that I don’t understand and can’t relate to, from the music to the technology to the manners and morals. What would it be like in 50 or 100 or 200 years from now?  I would be as alienated as someone from the 18th or 19th century in the world today.

I am curious to know the future.  The far future would be an interesting place to visit.  But I’m not sure I would want to live there.

What would be the point of living so long if I lived it as a grouchy old man? I already find myself talking much too much about how different things are today from the way they used to be.


So I revised my fantasy.  My gift of immortality would be shared with select friends and loved ones.   I would not journey into the future alone.  (No, I’m not going to tell you who they are.)

But then I got to thinking.  I love my friends dearly.  But like everybody, like me, they have irritating little habits that I overlook or put up with.  It is no problem.  But what if I had to be around them all the time? For eternity?  Wouldn’t there come a time when this would be intolerable?

Also, just because these individuals would be my favorite people to spend eternity with, I would not necessarily be their favorite person.  People cooped up with each other on remote outposts, even when they are good friends originally, sometimes find it hard to tolerate each other.  What if they were cooped up together forever?

ImmortalityThe philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play about Hell called No Exit, which consisted of four people in a locked room who had to endure each others’ company through all eternity.  My fantasy would not be greatly different from that play.

So, lying there in my hospital bed, I imagined a third fantasy.  Everybody immortal – not just me and my friends.  But this was the worst of all.  If everybody stays alive and nobody dies, there are no new people, and nothing changes.  I wouldn”t live past my time.  But my own time would on forever, which in the end would be just as boring and just as hard to endure.

So I gave up fantasies of physical immortality.  But then I reflected.  One of the appeals of immortality is endless time to do everything I want.   Well, I don’t have endless time, but I do have some time.  Rather than fantasizing, why start right now on doing the things I would do if I was immortal?

###

My newspaper experience tells me that deadlines are necessary to getting things done.  Knowing that somebody I am going to die is a reason to treasure every moment that I am alive, and to make the most of my time.  If life were infinite, would we value it?

That was 19 years ago, and I can tell you that, although I haven’t done any of the dramatic things that people put on their Bucket lists, and although I can’t claim to have made optimum use of my time, I have done a number of things, and learned a number of things, that I can look back on with satisfaction.

One of the benefits of my little mental exercise in the hospital was a feeling of gratitude for the gift of life, an intense pleasure in just being alive.   I don’t think I would feel that pleasure if life were unlimited.

###

The founders of Universalism believed in immortality, but they believed in immortality in another life not in this one.  Furthermore they believed that the new life would be a good one.  They did not believe in Hell.

When I try to describe Universalism to Christian friends who’ve never heard of it, they tell me I have a superficial idea of Hell.   “We don’t believe Hell has actual flames,” they say.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis said that all that is necessary for there to be a Hell is eternal life, plus human nature as it is.  Jean-Paul Sartre said Hell is other people.  C.S. Lewis, more realistically, said Hell is part of yourself.

His idea was well-illustrated by a certain episode of The Twilight Zone that I remember.  A petty criminal is killed, he is greeted by a man in a white robe who tells him he is in the after-life and can have anything he wants.  What he wants is to gamble and never lose, to commit robberies and always succeed, to make advances to beautiful women who always respond.

But after some months this all becomes boring.  He complains to the man in white, who asks him what percentage of gambling bets he wants to lose.  This isn’t what he wants.  Finally, in desperation, he says, “I’m sick of Heaven.  I want to go to the Other Place.”

“Oh, didn’t you know?” responds the man in white.  “This is the Other Place.”

Now I don’t think that you are a criminal or you believe successful crime would be Heaven.  But what would constitute Heaven?  The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges said he always imagined Heaven as a kind of library, and those who know me know that I would find this idea appealing.  But forever? Is reading—or anything else—so fascinating that you never would get tired of it?

There are really only two religious and philosophical conceptions of death.  One is that this life is all there is, or at least all we can know, and that a wise and good person tries to make the most of the life that they have.

The other is that after physical death, you are transformed something that transcends life as you know it, and that can’t really be described in human terms.

You see the second idea in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In the Inferno, you see people who are suffer eternal torment, but are locked into the same patterns of behavior in death that caused their downfall in life.  Mount Purgatory is the divine rehabilitation center.  People are painfully trying to rid themselves of the feelings and behaviors that keep them out of Paradise.  But Paradise is not describable.  It is not a continuation of life, but something else.

The Buddhists also disbelieve that continuation of earthly life is a blessing.  One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering, or at least that life as we know it is unsatisfactory.  They do not think of reincarnation as a blessing.  Rather they think of it as equivalent to being asked to repeat the sixth grade in school, not just once but an indefinite number of times.

Immortality2The movie, Groundhog Day, in which the Bill Murray character had to keep reliving the same day over and over again, until he got it right, is very like the Buddhist idea.  But even after you had figured out how to live a single day or a single lifetime, perfectly, you wouldn’t want to do it forever.

Everything we think we know is an illusion, the Buddhists say.  Enlightenment is a progressive freeing of the mind from illusion.  And once we are free of illusion, we see things as they really are.  And what is that?  They can’t say.  Like the people in Dante’s Paradise, they can only give analogies and say what it is not.  “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.”

Some religions do not center on hope for a better life after physical death.  There is no mention of an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible.  Confucius said we should concern ourselves with living well in this life and not worry about a next life.  Many philosophers ancient and modern. have proven belief in reward and punishments is not necessary to lead a life of integrity.

As for myself, I do not hope for an afterlife.  Maybe it is because my particular life has been exceptionally fortunate, but I am content with the blessings of this life.

###

I am not eager to die.  The life I lead is extremely interesting, and I hope I can live a long and healthy old age.  I don’t long for immortality, but neither do I long for death.

Here is an appropriate point, I suppose, for me to check my privilege.  I am a college-educated middle-class straight white American man with good insurance, which makes me one of the most fortunate human beings who ever lived.  I don’t have to worry about lack of food, clothing, shelter, electricity, telephone service, running water or medical care, and I have access to books, the Internet and anything else I can reasonably won’t.  I don’t know how philosophical I would be without these things.

I accept the idea of death.  The great French writer Montaigne said old age is preparation for death.  As we lose our faculties and abilities one by one, as our friends and loved ones drop away one by one, as our sources of pleasure disappear one by one, it becomes easier to be reconciled to the loss of all of them.  I’ve not reached that stage as yet, but I know that someday I will.

###

In the little town in which I grew up, there was an annual carnival to raise money for the volunteer fire department.  We boys saved our money and looked forward to the carnival all day long.
When the carnival came, I would enjoy all the rides, play all the games, eat cotton candy and all the other treats.

There would come a time, though, around dusk when the rides and games and concession stands would start to close, one by one.  I would have spent all my money, I would be tired and cranky, but I wouldn’t want to go home.  I would want the carnival to last forever.  But of course it couldn’t.  Closing time was bound to come.

I don’t think I’ve reached the equivalent point in my life.  But I accept that the time will come.  And, of course, it will come, whether I accept it or not.

I would like to close with wise words attributed to Chief Tecumseh.

Live your life so the fear of death can never enter your heart. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for your life and your strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. And if perchance you see no reason for thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself.

LINKS

So You Want to Live Forever by Charlotte Allen for The Weekly Standard.

Is God Happy? by Lezsek Kolakowski in the New York Review of Books.

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