The knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton has never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor.
The quote above is by Aldous Huxley. It sums up very well humanity’s attitude towards death, and interestingly, it can be interpreted in two opposite ways: praise for the human ability to soldier on, even in the face of inevitable demise, or a short, withering remark on how delusional we can be that, if we just ignore it really hard, maybe we don’t need to worry about death.
When I see people professing with apparently unshakable conviction the necessity of death, their not fearing it, or that—as they sometimes say in my hometown when somebody dies—”those who live have it worse”, I can’t help but think that the better interpretation of Huxley’s quote is the second one.
It’s all too easy to ignore your mortality, especially when you’re young and your death is probably very far into the future. At that stage, it can even make you come across as wiser than your age to talk about death and mortality the way that most people do—as a natural part of life that one should just accept. That’s just one of many silly platitudes with which you would hardly feel so comfortable if your death was imminent rather than decades away.
Considering that most of us claim to have no real problem with death, it’s really surprising how the vast majority of our myths basically revolve around the idea that we can continue living in some other form after dying. Just try to imagine how different religions would have been, assuming they’d even exist, if humans weren’t mortal. Resurrection, reincarnation, and all manner of otherworldly rewards are kind of a big deal in most belief systems, and thus, it’s doubtful whether these systems would survive our lack of mortality.
Myths, nonchalant attitudes, and other coping mechanisms have served, and still serve, the purpose of keeping death out of our minds. It wouldn’t be so easy to live your life if you were constantly haunted by the thought of its finitude; arguably, it might be so maddening that we might lose our minds entirely well before managing to have offspring, causing a lack of such mechanisms to be selected against by evolution.
We’re probably never going to make death absolutely impossible, or possible only “on demand”, so the permanence of some ways to cope with mortality is not a bad thing. Assuming that aging were defeated altogether and the average lifespan skyrocketed to 8000 years, it’s arguable that other causes of death would stick around for at least a very long time; some deaths would still be expected, and anyone could still be unlucky. However, we really should do away with all the phrases and clichés edulcorating death and depicting it as some sort of blessing in disguise, and not just because they’re blatant falsehoods; they’re also disrespectful of the tragedies that people who experience death, directly or indirectly, go through. This is especially true in the case of death by aging, which unlike deaths occurring earlier on, is more of a fact of life than a tragedy to many.
As an example, let me tell you about Philip and Margaret. (As you might have guessed, these are not their real names, but the story is all too real.) When Philip and Margaret met, old age was pretty much already there for both of them. When they married, he was in his early 70s, and in the words of Margaret, their relationship was what she’d been dreaming of when she was a teen. They spent over six wonderful years together, but for their sixth anniversary, Philip couldn’t be there. Cancer had taken his life only a couple of months after he had been diagnosed with it—only a few days before the anniversary.
I never met them personally. I spoke to them over a couple of video calls, as they were curious about my work in rejuvenation advocacy and rejuvenation in general, although they didn’t expect to live long enough to benefit from this emerging science, which has unfortunately been the case for Philip. Yet, as I recall, he was very enthusiastic about it. He passed away at home, assisted by his beloved wife and a friend, which I’m sure must have made the experience at least a little bit less terrifying, but he didn’t die peacefully in his sleep, as many would wish for themselves.
If you think this sounds romantic, I invite you to think again. Try to put yourself in Margaret’s place. Do you think that, while you were going through the ordeal of watching powerless as your dear husband dies slowly, assisting him with his every need, day or night, knowing that soon he’ll leave you forever, you’d ever stop to think, “Oh, this is so romantic”? Hardly. You would most likely perceive it as one of the worst tragedies ever to strike you. To paraphrase one of my favorite Peanuts comic strips, a tragedy is romantic when it happens to somebody else; other people might think what happened to Margaret was romantic because it didn’t happen to them. What really is romantic is how strongly they felt for each other, not the fact that death came in and broke their idyll. Depending on how you define “romantic”, your views may differ, but the point is that Philip and Margaret loved their life together and wanted it to continue, not for it to be abruptly interrupted by cancer.
Again, we might never be able to prevent death altogether; we all have to live with the knowledge that, no matter how hard we try to preserve our own lives and those of our loved ones, one day we might fail, and loss will ensue. However, none of this means that we should give up on preventing deaths that could be avoided if enough effort was put into doing so. Preventing age-related death is unquestionably going to require monumental efforts in terms of research, advocacy, and finances, but won’t it pay for itself a million times over when, a hundred years into the future, you and your loved one may still be together if you so wish? Would we really rather have our hearts broken horribly than acknowledge how aging menaces our happiness and do something to prevent it?
The answers to the questions above should be disarmingly trivial, yet too many people still prefer to bury their heads in the sand. We don’t need rejuvenation, they say; aging and death are natural parts of life; the loss of a loved one is cause for sorrow, but nature must take its course, and we must accept it; what is, ought to be. Unbelievably, I once talked to a person who said that, in her opinion, the entirety of your life flashing before your eyes upon the moment of your death will make it feel “better than an orgasm.” How delusional is that? Personally, I’ve had it; let the delusions and clichés die of old age instead. They’re just pathetic excuses for inaction. I don’t want to have to go through what Margaret and Philip had to. If you don’t either, and are tired of making excuses for aging, then perhaps it is time for you to think about how you can help.