Monday, August 12, 2019

On Living Forever

 In the constant quest for content ideas, I occasionally turn to my partner, Andrew, who offers ideas that rarely pan out.  Most recently, for example, he came to me, unprompted and excited, with an idea.

"I was just thinking about how people talk about living forever as this, you know, super power, like flying or being invisible.  But how you think of it like a curse.  And how it's been examined a lot in mythology and everything.  You should write an article on that," he said.

"I think that article has been written several times over," I said.

"Yeah, but you could do a fresh take.  You know, like... good," he said.

With Monday upon us and no better ideas, I figured I might as well.  (Whether or not my take is good is to be determined.)

Ask someone how long they want to live, and the answer is telling.  Some people have a number; others just a general, subjective answer.  ("As long as I'm healthy.")  Some people (about one in five) will say "forever."

 Those people are annoying B-characters who we wish would go away.

For time immemorial, long life has been considered a desirable thing and has been a present theme in a variety of myths.  In the Bible, the ten "Antediluvian patriarchs" all lived past 900 years old, with Methuselah making it to 969.  (These patriarchs were the ancestors between Adam and Noah.)  The "Philosopher's Stone" of Greek mythology was thought to promise immortality (as well as unlimited gold) and had an entire field of study dedicated to creating it (alchemy), with the term "Magnum Opus" being coined to describe the work that would someday reveal the secrets of its creation.  The search for an "elixir of life" ironically poisoned at least one Chinese emperor, Zhu Houcong of the Ming dynasty, who drank toxic amounts of mercury. 

In Persian mythos, the Cup of Jimshad was said to contain the elixir, while in European culture, people sought (and killed, and died for) the "Holy Grail."  Some sought out a more natural springwell; Ponce de León crossed the Atlantic, ending up in either Florida or the Bahamas, and many conquistadors followed, searching in various locales around South America in their quest for the famous "Fountain of Youth."  In Greek myth, the gods ate ambrosia to become immortal; the Norse gods, on the other hand, ate golden apples.  In nearly every culture, the concept of living forever existed.

And in modern times, we continue to try to ply old people for their "secret" to long life, with answers ranging from wholesome to delightfully perverse.  (Jeanne Calmert, the oldest recorded person, lived 122 years and 164 days, and smoked.  Kane Tanaka is the oldest living person at the time I'm writing this; she is nearing 117 and drinks three cups of coffee, as well as soda, daily.)

But there's a dark side to the "living forever" myths.  Many immortal beings are cursed.  Look no further than the undead.  Vampires, for example, are a cursed cryptid doomed to live forever.  Hydra and T. dohrnii, the "immortal jellyfish," are a real-life animals with biological immortality who may or may not be miserable. 

Don't be.
Their mouths and anuses are the same orifice.

Certainly, for every tale of someone being bestowed immortality as a blessing, there's another of it being bestowed as a curse.  One of my favorite examples comes from Jonathan Swift's book Gulliver's Travels, in which he describes the "struldbrugg," a race of humans who live forever but age normally, growing increasingly weak and feeble-minded, and turning into a nightmarish walking corpse who are utter nuisances to society.  A far more modern example of immortality as a curse comes from the Disney movie Hocus Pocus, in which Thackery Binx is cursed to live as a cat forever.  (Although the cat's death in the movie is supposed to be a happy moment, I cried my eyes out as a kid when it happened.)

So what's the deal with aging, anyway?

No one knows.  Theories range from mutation accumulation to telomere shortening to programmed cell death (or "planned obsolescence") to antagonistic pleiotropy (which more or less states that the energy involved in maintaining life is eventually the very thing that kills you) to Gypsy curses.   There's a lot of ideas but no one is entirely sure.  If we knew, we would have cured progeria by now.  Progeria is a genetic disease that causes rapid aging and no one is 100% sure how it works.  But we know it probably has some clues about how aging works.  And we know that aging is something that can be cured.  Horrifyingly, according to Wikipedia page for immortality states, "as the existence of biologically immortal species demonstrates, there is no thermodynamic necessity for senescence."

Of course, this is all only talking about the physical limitations of living forever.  There are awful mental and social consequences of such a thing, many of which are people's arguments against why they wouldn't want to live forever.  These include having to watch all their loved ones die, seeing the world's population explode, and the terrible irreversibility of a single decision.

To me, one question has always been the mental implications.  Though the brain has ample storage space (millions of gigabytes), that translates practically into only a few hundred years of memories.  And what happens then?  Does your brain simply start overwriting old memories, making everything you experience impermanent and therefore meaningless?  Or does your brain stop making new memories, rendering you stagnant and senile but still physically youthful?  And what about time relativity?  The longer you live, the more time speeds up from your perspective.  Wouldn't a 1,000-yr-old being find themselves in a situation where all interactions became brief and meaningless, and even a "lifelong" relationship passed in the blink of an eye?

These questions haven't deterred some scientists, who fear death more than they do immortality.  A growing movement of transhumanists have been trying to figure out how to "upload" human consciousness into a storage device.  Some believe "immortality" might be possible by 2050.  This has raised the question of what is "self," whether an immortal being could even be considered a single entity, or whether it would end up in an endless Ship of Theseus cycle, like the immortal jellyfish.  (There's a really excellent New Yorker article on this very topic.)

The subject of "ideal" age goes hand-in-hand with the question of whether or not we "should" live forever.  Some studies have determined that the "best" age is somewhere in the mid-thirties, factoring in both the wisdom that (supposedly) comes with age along with physical decline.  Others have said that the best age is 50, though this discounts those who are going purely by physical prowness or fertility, which peaks in the twenties.  Ultimately there's no correct answer because different people value different things as individuals; if your goal is wealth accumulation, then 50 might be a better age for you than 27, but if your goal is to run a really solid marathon, then 27 is the best place to be.

It's worth noting, though, that no one's ever said that the "ideal age" is higher than 100.

So immortality.  My take?  It's not something I would ever want; I believe death is a very natural part of life and it's not something I trouble myself with.  For me, life has been on an upward trend, getting gradually better as it's experienced.  But that doesn't mean it has to last forever.  How long would I choose to live, if I could?  Maybe 90, maybe even 100.  Not longer.  Life is meant to be lived and experienced, not hoarded.  And among all this talk of longevity, people are missing a very important factor: quality.  Quality of life should be our focus, not quantity.  "Youth" and "health" are, ultimately, means to an end.  That end is the enjoyment of life.  Don't waste your life searching for more of it; love what you have and what you're given, and beware any elixirs that seem too good to be true.  They might just contain mercury.

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