In the long run, we are all dead.
– John Maynard Keynes

What is the point of it all, then?

Death, defined by American philosopher Thomas Nagel as the unequivocal and permanent end to our existence, is widely regarded as undesirable, primarily because it deprives us of life, and brings to an end all the valuable pleasures and sources of enjoyment that life offers. It seems to naturally follow that immortality should therefore be highly sought after, especially since one would no longer be subject to the deprivations that death demands.

Yet, should our conclusions on the desirability of both death and immortality necessarily be so intuitive?

 

The Tedium of Immortality

In contemplating this question, it is perhaps useful to draw reference to a play by Czech writer, Karel Čapek, titled The Makropulos Case. Reflecting on the potential tedium of immortality, the play depicts the protagonist, Elina Makropulos, having consumed a mysterious elixir of life as per her father’s instructions for the past three centuries, thereby enabling her to live well beyond the average life span of a human-being. At age 342, Elina’s seemingly endless life causes her to be in a state of perpetual boredom, indifference, and coldness – everything has become joyless to her. In fact, she laments: ‘in the end it is the same’. The play ends with Elina’s inevitable death owing to her refusal to take the elixir again.

The case of Makropulos, albeit fictional, suggests that death may not necessarily be undesirable, hinting at the possible benefits of not having to live an unending life. To imagine an endless life, where conceivable at all, would indubitably lead one to realise that the immortal man would ultimately face an incurable state of extreme ennui not unlike that of Elina’s.

 

Our Evolving Experience of Time

In the same vein, much has been debated on the perceived acceleration in terms of the passing of time as human-beings age. In Principles of Psychology, William James remarked on the increasing monotony of life with each birthday that passes us by:

The same space of time seems shorter as we grow older. Each passing year converts some of our experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all.

 

A mathematical perspective from which to consider this perceived phenomenon is that our experience of time is proportional to our age. That is, a year as experienced by a ten-year-old child is far greater in vibrancy, diversity, and novelty as compared to that of a centenarian, for one year represents 10% of the child’s existence, whereas for the centenarian, a mere 1%.

Extending this logic to that of the immortal man, an additional year of experience, in stark contrast to the infinite length of his life, would then seem to be even more insignificant and minuscule. His engagement in any activity (out of a finite, constrained set of possible activities) would then appear to be meaningless, superfluous, even, one that he must have experienced multiple times before in his preceding multitude of years. Such a scenario is poignantly depicted by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science:

 

This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you… The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!

 

In Economics, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns states that as a person increases his consumption of a particular product, the marginal satisfaction (returns) he derives from consuming every additional unit of that product would decrease correspondingly. Based on this train of thought, the immortal man would therefore eventually arrive at a particular point where an additional year of experience would no longer yield any further utility to himself.

 

The Impact of the Idea of Immortality

Beyond the seemingly incurable state of restlessness that is bound to befall the immortal man, perhaps what lurks even more sinisterly in the background is the impact the idea of immortality can have on one’s perspectives and approach to life.

Immortality possesses the power to irrevocably alter one’s attitudes on life, as the motivation to strive hard towards meaningful goals can appear to be much less urgent or critical given that the finite time constraint of a life span is now whisked away. The immortal man enjoys the luxury of limitless time in which he can pursue his goals, thereby leaving ample time for procrastination and redemption. This presents a loss of value creation not only to himself but also to the society at large: the cumulative opportunity cost in terms of the delay, or more likely, the acute loss of original contributions would indeed be staggering.

 

Our Mortality as Motivation

In light of this, death, by contrast, serves to remind us of the humbling state of our mortality, and thus drives us to make better use of the limited, valuable time we have on this earth to make a lasting impact in the world through ways we – individually and collectively – are able and desire to. Rather than being seen as a limiting factor depriving us of opportunities, death can instead be perceived as a form of liberalisation from the fetters of that which are undesirable to us.

Most of all, it is our very mortality that serves as a sobering reminder, sometimes in the form of a near-death encounter while on board a precarious flight miles away from home, one that we oftentimes forget as we become caught up in the humdrum of our daily lives, that we should, each and every day, endeavour to live a life that is true to ourselves, our passions, and our beliefs, for our lives are but transient and fleeting, as with the gift of time.

In the long run, we are indeed all dead. But in the long run, we will all also become stories that can inspire and uplift, transcending the boundaries of time and space. It is precisely because of the fact that we will all be dead in the long run that we face the urgency and critical need to pursue our passions and dreams in the present time.

After all, it is our mortality – not immortality – that compels us to strive hard to leave behind not insipid, uninspiring lives, but rather, true manifestations of our ideas in their tangible forms whose permanence can far outlive our own.

 

  • Ed Gibney

    Boo. It’s only because life runs out that we give up on trying to live it and let our lives run on autopilot. Not everyone does this though, and these people are examples of what we all might do if we were faced with the “curse” of very long lives—we would all learn to live!

    • hope

      I think many give up because they never really learn how to live. They have followed the script that others have given them for so long that they haven’t a clue about what they are passionate about,their interest, what they want to do with their lives. Some have spent most of their lives being and/or doing what someone else needed. When that is no longer needed they sometimes feel lost, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Depending upon where you are on life’s road when that happens, it might seem easier to put yourself on autopilot rather than trying to draw up a road
      map.

      • Ed Gibney

        Yep. That’s all right.

      • I agree, perhaps some do not even realise that they are living their lives on autopilot, and not truly living. This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by Anais Nin, you might enjoy it:

        “You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book, or you take a trip, and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.”

  • AgeoftReason

    False *but still a great read otherwise.

    “In Economics, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns states that as a
    person increases his consumption of a particular product, the marginal
    satisfaction (returns) he derives from consuming every additional unit
    of that product would decrease correspondingly. Based on this train of
    thought, the immortal man would therefore eventually arrive at a
    particular point where an additional year of experience would no longer
    yield any further utility to himself.”

    • Hello AgeoftReason, glad to hear that you enjoyed the read 🙂

      The reference made to the Law of Diminishing Returns was to illustrate the scenario where an immortal man would eventually reach a point where each additional unit (or in which case, year of life) that he has would yield lower marginal returns (satisfaction) for him as compared to that of the preceding year. If we were to then extend our lives to infinity, from a mathematical perspective, as the variable (years of life) approaches infinity, the marginal returns would correspondingly approach zero. That is, the immortal man would thus eventually find that the marginal satisfaction he accrues is zilch.

      • AgeoftReason

        I understand the point, thank you for clarifying. I just don’t like the direction of thought. 🙂 But isn’t that the whole point? Trying to stay young and ‘capture your youth’?

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  • sandhan

    This is completely the wrong way around. Learning to live is what helps us to die.. After all everything is a preparation for death ..

    • Hi @sandhan:disqus, thanks for your comment. There are various ways in which we can perceive life and death, one of which is to consider death as a reminder to us of the limited time we have on this earth to create an impact, by living a life that is unique to us, one that we can truly call our own. Without the reminder of death, we might go on with our seemingly endless life, performing task after routine task, never questioning the purpose of it all. One question we could ask is this: is the point of our existence to prepare us to die eventually, or, to make a difference in the world through the ways we have chosen to live our lives? Happy to hear your thoughts on this 🙂

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  • Manoj

    Thank you Agnes for this wonderful article which I have saved to serve as a reminder. Keeping the end in mind(as Stephen Covey says) pushes us to lead more meaningful lives.

    • Thanks Manoj, I’m glad it resonated with you 🙂

  • jelroy

    Well this perpetuated my current existential crisis… great read otherwise! 🙂