Death Sucks

[ Note: A shorter version of this entry appeared on my blog, The Speculist, on January 16, 2004. This essay does not delve into the specifics of any anti-aging techniques, but I hope that it helps to explain why I think fighting aging is such a good idea.]

Reader Mary (Definitely on the Outer Ring) posed the following question in a recent comment:

Why are you so scared of dying?

She wrote some other provocative questions as well, but I want to focus on this one for now.

From the context, I'm going to assume that what Mary is asking is a philosophical question. She doesn't want to know why I would get out of the way of a speeding truck. All mentally healthy human beings are "scared of dying" in that sense; it's something we share with virtually every living being on the planet.

What Mary wants to know is this: why am I not resigned to my own mortality? Why would I want to engage in this unseemly practice of exploring alternatives to dying?

I'll tell you why, Mare.

Death sucks.

Some say that dying is as natural as being born. I say, so what? Vomiting is as natural as eating, but I happen to like eating a lot more.

Some say that death is a part of life. I contend that, by definition, it is not.

Some say that death is the threshold to the next stage of existence. I say maybe so. But this stage seems to have a natural built-in aversion to the threshold to that stage, and I'm going to take that aversion seriously

Many believe that the fear of death is a primitive relic, a lingering superstition. Fear of death, they will tell us, is what originally led humanity to irrational thinking. We invented gods and spirits primarily to assuage this fear. Now we live in an age when rational thinking might once again hold sway, although irrationalism persists all around. To differentiate themselves from the irrational throng, rational thinkers proudly state that they are not afraid of dying.

I remember years ago, when I went to see Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, there were two groups of sign-carrying protestors standing out front of the theatre. One group was Christian, the other was Atheist. The box office line was rather long, and those of us standing in it were stuck between these two groups: one warning us not to go see this shocking piece of blasphemy, the other encouraging our support of free speech. Needless to say, there was a good deal of verbal sparring between the two camps. Some comments were good natured and even a little funny, but it got heated from time to time. I remember one exchange ended with these very words:

Yeah? Well, I'm not afraid of dying.

Hey, good one. Sign-carrying atheists, one; sign-carrying fundamentalists, zero.

Unfortunately, that's a load of crap. No, I don't mean that I doubt that guy's sincerity when he said that he was not afraid to die. I'm sure he meant it, and wasn't just trying to score points against those polyester-clad, big-haired fundamentalists in front of his cool sign-carrying atheist friends. But the notion that the fear of dying is uniquely linked with irrational thinking is just about as wrong as it can be.

Let's go back 50,000 years or so ago and take a look at our primitive ancestors. It's true that somewhere along the line they developed burial rituals and a belief in an afterlife. Maybe this was just an irrational response to their fear of death and the grief of losing a loved one. But it was just a small part of what they were doing. What, then, were they spending most of their time doing?

Figuring out how the world worked.

These plants will make you sick. These are good for food. Spears with sharp stone heads are better than pointed sticks at bringing down game and warding off predators. This is a good place to stay; predators don't usually come here. After the moon changes three more times, we'll start heading south. We used to wait until it got cold, but this way works better and we lose fewer members of the tribe.

Our ancestors relentlessly pursued an empirical investigation into the nature of...everything. Science didn't begin with Newton or Bacon or the ancient Greeks. It started way back when. All mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy - all rational human thought - has as its foundation the pioneering work of these our ancestors.

Now what do you suppose motivated them to do all this hard investigative work, to engage in all this rational thinking. I believe that it was, in large part, the fear of death.

Think about it. They were besieged by threats on all sides. A rational, empirical approach to the world emerged as the soundest way of warding off those threats. If our fundamentalist-taunting friend could go back in time and somehow convey to a group of his ancestors his basic credo of intellectual superiority - "I'm not afraid of dying" - they'd think he was nuts. And not because they were so irrational.

But we're only halfway there. Let's look at the other side.

Paradoxically, the self-satisfied volley of "I'm not afraid of dying" might just as easily have come from the religious side of the ticket line. Religious and spiritually oriented people are often quick to tell you that they have no fear of death. And if you really got it, - whatever that means to the particular believer - you wouldn't be afraid of death, either. If you only understood about Jesus' victory on the cross, or reincarnation, or nirvana, or even just the Natural Order of Things, you would be as resigned to your own eventual demise as the rest of us.

Yeah, well, that's a load of crap, too.

I'm going to restate that so I'm not misunderstood. Any religion that teaches that you should be okay with the fact that you're going to die is a load of crap. Christianity (to use the religion I'm most familiar with) most assuredly does not teach this. As C. S. Lewis famously put it:

But here is something quite different. Here is something telling me -- well, what? Telling me that I must never, like the Stoics, say that death does not matter. Nothing is less Christian than that. Death which made Life Himself shed tears at the grave of Lazarus, and shed tears of blood in Gethsemane. This is an appalling horror; a stinking indignity. (You remember Thomas Browne's splendid remark: "I am not so much afraid of death, as ashamed of it.)

I agree with Thomas Brown and with C. S. Lewis. I'm ashamed of death. Christianity teaches that death came to humanity as a result of our fall from grace. The history of technological and medical development shows that we die because we haven't yet figured out how not to. Either way, death is a shortcoming. Either way, it's evident that we were meant for something better.

Deep down, all human beings - including people of science, people of faith, and people who could care less about either - share the same natural revulsion for death. We can blot these feelings out and cover them up, but to do so is to become like those rabbits in Watership Down who sang melancholy songs while trading their lives for some lettuce and carrots.

Those who claim to have no fear of death, whether they be an Objectivist or the Dalai Lama or some Palestinian strapping dynamite to his chest, have lost touch with a primary truth of human existence: a truth which has lead us both to science and to faith. Those who seek to prolong human life - whether via antioxidants or cryonics or standard medical procedures - have tapped into that same fundamental truth: death sucks.

So it's a profound truth at the core of our existence. As one reader glibly responded to my original posting of this entry: "So what?"

I have two possible answers to that "so what," both of which come from, absurdly enough, Rodney Dangerfield.

In the movie Caddyshack, there's a scene in which the Rodney Dangerfield character's caddy complains about having to carry such a heavy golf bag. Dangerfield tells the kid to suck it in, that when he was the kid's age, he had to carry twenty-pound blocks of ice to the top of ten-story buildings (or some such hardship.)

The kid is not impressed.

"So what?" he says.

"So what?" Dangerfield replies. "So let's dance!"

He whips a remote control out of one of the pockets of the golf bag and turns on a stereo hidden inside. The entire fairway erupts with music (Journey's Any Way You Want It, as a matter of fact) and all the golfers begin to dance.

It's a silly scene in a very silly movie. But Dangerfield's response is right on the money.

So life is full of hardship. So one person's hardship might be worse than another's. So we toil away for years on end, grow frail, and one day die.

So what are you going to do about it?

I'm going to dance.

I'm going to laugh. I'm going to sing. I'm going to shout. I'm going to work. I'm going to play.

I'm going to live.

As poet Andrew Marvell put it:

The grave 's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

When I asked Cambridge University Geneticist and anti-aging visionary Aubrey de Grey what plans he had for a life that might span several centuries, his answer surprised me. Aubrey told me that he wants to live a long time so he can spend more time with his wife and his friends, so he can have a few more chances to take his boat out on the river, so he can get in a few more games of Othello.

"At root," Aubrey explained, "the reason I'm not in favor of aging is because I like life as I know it."

The other answer I have to that persistent "so what" doesn't really come from Rodney Dangerfield, although he did recite it quite passionately in the movie Back to School. This response comes from poet Dylan Thomas:

Though Wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So that's my answer. Death sucks, and I have no intention of going gently into that good night.

My thanks to Reason for asking me to be a part of this new blog. In the weeks to come, I intend to do more than just rage against the dying of the light (although I think we should all do that every now and then, just to keep us grounded). I'm going to add my voice to those who even now are looking for a way if not to stop the Sun, then to outrun it.

Comments

One of the things I like about pieces like this is that it's so important for us to stand up and forcefully state the obvious - that death does indeed suck.

I make a number of the same points (although in my normal less concise manner) in the essay Activism for Healthy Life Extension at the Longevity Meme.

If we don't rage, we don't get things done. Raging is a very necessary part of encouraging broad, well-funded research into extending the healthy human life span.

Posted by: Reason at February 6, 2004 12:24 PM

I like Phil's perspective too, and especially his forcefulness. When I first read his essay a few weeks ago, I was immediately reminded of a humurous but pointed entry on my Incipient Posthuman website. It's called "Being Dead Sucks" - http://IncipientPosthuman.com/dead.htm

Posted by: Mike Treder at February 7, 2004 8:03 AM

i couldt agree with you more. fits well with the A4M 3 rules of antiaging medicine.....dont get sick, dont grow old, dont die. best wishes to all for a long and happy lifespan/ ron klatz md.

Posted by: dr ron klatz at February 7, 2004 5:36 PM

Good to see you reading this, Ron. You guys should start up something blog-like over at A4M one of these days. Your views on regenerative medicine and the future of healthy life extension don't seem to air much online beyond the news articles that quote you - far better to be your own mouthpiece :)

If the very correct and proper folks at the Mises Institute ( http://www.mises.org ) can pull it off and look good, then any organization can.

Reason
Founder, Longevity Meme

Posted by: Reason at February 8, 2004 12:34 AM

I just read, "The Immortal's Club" (New Scientist, 9 April 2005) and felt compelled to write a comment to the original posting here.

It seems that being afraid of death is indeed a very ancient ingrained pattern of behavior which has served birth well. That this fear holds great sway over our actions, seems of little doubt.

Yet as much as I try to hold on to this life of mine, I cannot come up with a single example of something which has, or will remain static forever. Everything seems to be constantly in flux, impermanent, as painful as this often is to accept.

We wouldn't consider the ever-changing cycle of seasons to be a problem in need of fixing, or an adversary needing to be fought, so why death? If impermanence is indeed universal fact, how can the permanence of life exist forever. Death will come eventually, despite the stories we might like to tell ourselves.

So perhaps, instead of fighting death, we might find that accepting impermanence might actually be a greater gift to ourselves and those around us. Maybe by accepting our own deaths, and loosening our grasp on this constant struggle against it, we may find greater joy in our everyday, finite, precious lives.

Thank you.

Posted by: John Rempel, 26 at April 15, 2005 12:40 AM

John,

No one said anything about life remaing static. Think about it for a minute. What is this life of yours that you're trying to hold onto? What do you understand it to be? Do you consider it an object? Or is it more like an idea?

At the level of molecular biology, life is surely defined procedurally. Your cells are continuously refabricating themselves out of new materials. That's why you eat.

Do you remember the Ship of Theseus? Set sail with a big stack of lumber piled on the deck. Replace each plank of the ship, one by one, while you're cruising out at sea. Eventually, all the boards are new. So what is the object that returns to port?

Same ship.

Take a human body. Replace every component, one at a time. What do you get? Same human. What's the difference?

Flux at one level of abstraction does not in any way preclude continuity at another. Yes, John, every *thing* is impermanent. Luckily for us, life is not a thing. And death is nothing to define yourself by. Your certainty in death is discomforting, at best.

Cheers, TP

Posted by: TP at January 25, 2006 10:43 PM

Yes, death sucks and it is pretty sure to happen, but the least we can do is die with dignity when time comes.
This is not an agitation simply an advice.

Posted by: Antonia Kancheva at June 19, 2006 6:55 AM

Do I care how the world remembers me? Yes. In fact, (although I admit that I’m exaggerating to a wide extent), I’d hope that the world would be so distraught with my death that no one could go on with their lives without great mourning and utter grief. I know, however, despite my own sense of self-importance, the world will keep going around long after I’m gone, and go on unchanged.

If I may, in regard to the whole world, I, at least at this moment in time, do not care so much what happens after I expire, as I won’t be here for it. I know I sound like a greedy SOB by saying it, but I admit that I have a sense of self worth in myself at such a level that I might as well say “to hell with the world” once I’m gone. In other words, if I cannot be alive and enjoy life, why should others enjoy themselves? Knowing that the sun will explode and that the galaxy will be sucked into a black hole billions of years from now is sometimes a comfort and relief for me – I can’t help but think that way.

The fact that we must all die does bother me, despite it being the great equalizer that we all must go through. It’s hard sometimes to not think of life as just a timed precursor to the permanent state of nonexistence: death. Death’s permanence, combined with the fear of the unknown, makes it a force most perplexing.

All my views are not so gloomy, however. I am a Christian and believe that the world is too complex to have formed by chance. If I knew for sure that I’d transport to the feet of Jesus tomorrow, I’d gladly and proudly die with joy tonight.

Posted by: Blaw-Knox at July 9, 2008 11:11 PM

to those that are in favor of life extension, I applaud your candor, honesty and most importantly, your appreciation of life. At the risk or humiliating myself, I was once complacent about dying, considering it to be an event that was meant to be. In the last year I took a couple of science course in University and was introduced to Bio Technology, which to a great degree encompass the aspect of life extension. This and my constantly growing appreciation for life made me realize sometheing: I want to live FOREVER!!! and I am willing to do whatever it take to achieve that goal

Posted by: KD at December 6, 2010 11:50 AM

Yes death does suck I guess. Mostly for the people left behind to clean up the crap we didn't get done before we kacked. For myself, As long as there is something to look forward to, something or someone to enjoy, I'd like to stick around. When that's no longer the case, I will check out without complaint. Whether there is a heaven on the other side or not, matters not a whit. For the dying, unless its a "bad" death, I suspect the experience is pretty unremarkable.

Posted by: mikey61 at September 3, 2011 4:16 PM
Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Please note that comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.









Remember personal info?