Wanting More Life

17 March 2007


Nobody wants to die.  Well, that's not exactly true.  Some people do commit suicide in moments of deep despair.  And many would rather die than live on in interminable and unbearable pain.   I bet hardly anyone, if you asked them in advance,  would say "Even if I sink into a persistent vegetative state,  keep me alive.  Better to live on as a vegetable than to die."

So, the simple statement that I opened with needs to be qualified.  No one who is in the full flowering of life, who is not overcome with a paralyzing despair or unbearable pain,  etc. wants to die. It would seem to follow from that alone that we intrinsically prefer, at least at every moment of full flowering,  life to death.   And it would  seem to follow from that alone that we prefer immortality to mortality. Of course,  we aren't going to get immorality.   At least not in THIS life.   But if immortality really is something we intrinsically desire but are barred from achieving in the one and only life we are ever going to get,  what follows?   That's what I want to talk about a bit in this post in order to get my juices flowing before going on the air with todays guest Anne Ashbaugh.     Anne, by the way,  was our guest on one of the most popular Philosophy Talk episodes ever, as judge by the web traffic it still receives.   Even in a supposedly high-brow subject like philosophy,  sex still sells,  I guess.

 But back to the desire for immortality. The first thing one might wonder is that given that we aren't going to get it, at least not in this life, why should we bother desiring it at all. One could easily think that desiring immortality serves no real real function except to cause deep frustration and sadness over our own mortality. There's no doubt that mortality sucks -- not to put too fine a point on it. At least the combination of mortality and the multifarious vulnerabilities that human flesh is heir to sucks. So many ways to die! Only one way to keep on living -- avoiding all those ways of dying! Plus so many of the ways of dying are truly awful. Think of all the painful, depressing deaths that are possible. Deaths of steady painful decline. Pointless deaths at the hands of all sorts of miscreants. Deaths from some fruitless forlorn war. Premature deaths. Self-inflicted deaths. Dying alone, dying alone, one's life's work misunderstood or discredited.

I would gladly see all the pointless and depressing deaths disappear. But although I think that all deaths are sad (for someone) maybe not all deaths are bad in the ways that the kinds of deaths just referred to above are. Maybe there is such a thing as a good death.

Perhaps we could more easily see some deaths as "good" deaths -- not good simpliciter, but good in the way that deaths can be, good "for a death" (but is that damning with faint praise?) -- if we did not view mortality itself as a problem to be overcome, as a tragic condition from which we yearn to escape, to which we cannot be reconciled.

Throughout much of human history and in many human culture mortality has indeed been viewed as a tragic predicament from which we yearn to escape. It is no accident, I think, that eastern and western cultures have both given rise to fantasies of the afterlife. Of course there are difference between eastern and western visions of the afterlife. Westerners seem to have envisioned afterlives in which we survive as the very persons that we now are. Easterners seem to have envisioned an afterlife that involves, ultimately -- perhaps after many cycles of earthly existence -- some kind of non-personal survival in the great sea of being. Despite their differences, I suspect that both sets of visions of the afterlife are borne of a deep sense that the condition of mortality is tragic.

To be sure, there have been those how have accepted mortality as an inescable condition of human existence, who have had the clear eyed courage to acknoweldge that we have exactly one short life, a life that will last for a mere blip in the entire history of the universe, a life that will never be repeated, that can't be transcended, escaped, or extended by a transit to some otherwordly realm. The existentialists are perhaps the clearest examples.

But we still have a problem. We desire always more life -- at least when we are in the flowering of life -- but we can't have it. So doesn't the combination of our desire for more life and our inability to get it imply that we are destined to frustation and sadness, to endure an insatiable longing. And doesn't that make those who see mortality as a tragedy right?

Of coruse, sometimes the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" manage to beat the desire for still more life out of us. But that just shows, again, that its not just mortatlity, but mortality plus "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" that pack the real whammy. Perhaps mortality wouldn't be so depressing if it weren't for the shocks. On the other hand, the thought that you could eliminate the thousand natural shocks is probably as hopeless and as delusional as thoughts of an afterlife.

Could we give up wanting more life (life of the full-flowering kind)? Should we give it up? The stoics say, roughly, if there is something beyond your control and you hold your happiness hostage to whether you gain or lose that thing, then you will not live well, you will not be a self-governing other, but will be "fortune's slave," as Shakespeare has as Hamlet put it.

Well I think we can't give up the desire for more life. And that we shouldn't. That would be a tragedy of its own kind. We should embrace life fully and entirely with open and welcoming arms. And we should also mourn its passing. For the loss of life is really a loss, a great loss, perhaps the greatest loss -- at least if its the loss of live of the full flowering kind.

But there must be a way both to embrace life and to desire it as a great and glorious good, but also to be reconciled to the inescapable fact of its finitude and vulnerability. There must be a way both to desire to be and to delight in just what we are -- finite, fragile beings, here for only the briefest of moments -- without giving into a despair that gives rise to delusions and fantasies. In their own sometimes confusing, but sometimes astoundingly clear-eyed ways that's what many of the existentialists were after. Unfortunately, I don't have time to elaborate on why I think that. Maybe I can say more after the show.

But for now, I gotta go, as Ian Shoales loves to say.

Talk to ya' soon.

Comments (10)

Guest's picture


Saturday, March 17, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

The fear or distaste we feel when we face our mort

The fear or distaste we feel when we face our mortality is somewhat leavened by the realization that, after a while, life gets sort of repetitive and, as faculties decay, less interesting. I recall seeing William Buckley on Charlie Rose's excellent interview show, talking about his life and saying that he has become "weary". He had done so much and now life seemed to be wearing on him.
Then, of course, there is also the tendency of things in the long term to become disorganized. There's the end of the earth and perhaps the end of the universe to consider. I would certainly not want to live to that point, much less beyond.

Guest's picture


Saturday, March 17, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I am the caller during the show on immortality who

I am the caller during the show on immortality who raised the issue that the current discussion on immortality contained two major assumptions that were not being mentioned: (1) the assumption that the self is real and could conceivably go into the indefinite future and (2) that time is a succession of instants from the past, to the present and into the future.
This note is a clarification of the second assumption concerning time that the radio format did not have enough time for. Ken Taylor stated that an athlete who is living in the now (an example I had brought up) still has to learn from the past and plan for the future and just can?t live in the now. This response is a common misperception of the position that we can only live in the now. When a person thinks about the future, he can only do this
in the present; likewise, when he thinks about the past he can only do so in the present. The activity of planning for the future or learning from the past is not excluded by the view that all we have is the present. We cannot jump into the future to think about the future ? it has to be done in the now.
The concepts of past and future are just that ? concepts - or mental constructs. They are much like the constructs of longitude and latitude. These are not strings girdling the earth ? as depicted on maps and globes. They are constructs that help up to navigate the earth - and therefore are useful tools - but we can?t stumble over them in our trips from point A to point B. In exactly the same way, the ?past? and ?future? are mental constructs, mental boxes, which help us to order our experiences. But, they are no more real than latitude and longitude.
I would like to know what others think about this concept of time.
In any case, in a philosophical investigation about any subject, it is useful to at least state what the big assumptions are behind the discussion. Clarification is a major function of philosophy and, concerning the present discussion about immortality, these two assumptions above are at least worth recognizing as such, even if one comes to difficult conclusions regarding them.
Don DuBois

Guest's picture


Sunday, March 18, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Donald has raised intriguing issues that, for me,

Donald has raised intriguing issues that, for me, highlight the limits of western philosohical discourse.
This notion that time is but a mental construct has been developed in western thought only recently by theoretical physicists. While some physicists have found "the arrow of time" to be a fragment from the first moments of the big bang, others find no good evideence in the material world as to why we should expect that our actions today shoujld have effects in the future.
Eastern philosophy and religion, however, has developed this notion of time for millenia. Without launching into a dissertation, suffice it to say that certain Hindu and Buddhist thinkers maintain that there is only the "now" and that thoughts of the past and future take one (to quote Eliade) one out of the "sacred" space and into the "profane" space of the world. Buddhists call this "mindfullness."
Western neo-platonists, and followers of "new age" figures such as Eckhert Tolle have begun developing this motion of the "now" as the only meaningful measure of time.
As to immortality, I find that western discourse on eastern ideas focuses only on the Hindu notion of reincarnation. Buddhism (generally) advocates rebirth, and there is an importatn difference. reincarnation implies the tranmigration of a distinct soul, while rebirth does not.
To illustrate this point, the Buddha aked his followers to visualize a candle being lit which in turn lit another candle and in turn another, repeated millions and millions of times. Which is the original flame (of consciousness)?
I found this notion that I (there is no "self")am not here very comforting when I took this woman I was dating to a Celine Dion concert.

Guest's picture


Thursday, March 22, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I am seventy three and its almost two years now si

I am seventy three and its almost two years now since being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. I was told then that I had 3 to 6 months to live unless I had the Whipple Procedure, a major operation where the survival rates are very low and resultant suffering very high. I fully expected to die during the operation and accepted it calmly, perhaps because the symptons of the disease are awful. I survived the "procedure" well, but Chemotherapy was now required and took the essence of my life away.
I do not believe in a "higher power" (except perhaps women in general) or an afterlife. I have been off Chemo now for six months and have felt truely alive, I have felt true physical and spiritual "joy" for the first time in my life. I understand that I am a part of Nature in the whirling circle of all life - not an observer of Nature.
My Oncologist has just informed me that the cancer had returned, but now inoperable and terminal and associated with much physical suffering. I was also told that I am to go back to a life of Chemotherapy.
Frankly, I don't understand why I feel so calm about it all. Perhaps its because of my intertwining with Nature (I lived alone along the Great Divide in Montana for nine years)and my place in it. I now doubt that Nature really intended or desires Humanity. That evolution somewhere along the way missed a beat and created animals that are suicidal and the antithisis of Nature. Although I'm not sure, I think that I am comfortable with the fact of mortality. Hey, I've had a fantastic ride and at some point you have to get off!

Guest's picture


Friday, March 23, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks, Lowell. I'm touched. I think that says i

Thanks, Lowell. I'm touched. I think that says it all.
God bless.

Guest's picture


Monday, March 26, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Everybody wants to be in heaven, but nobody wants

Everybody wants to be in heaven, but nobody wants to die....

nick's picture


Tuesday, April 10, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Desire both innate and intentional (e.g. a goal) i

Desire both innate and intentional (e.g. a goal) is almost as interesting as the phenomenon of consciousness itself.

Guest's picture


Sunday, April 15, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Having a finite life is necessary because it gives

Having a finite life is necessary because it gives us a timeline in which to operate. We know that by a certain time we should meet a partner, perhaps have children, embark on a career, take vacations, and so on. If we lived forever then there would be no rush to do anything and the world would slow down to an almost unbearably slow rate that would cause boredom.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, April 24, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Great post Ken. Things are made such that w

Great post Ken.
Things are made such that we will not stop our activities despite our ultimate extinction.
We all have the option of ending it now. Instead, the little bird of hope perches singing on our shoulders and we go on. Maybe we will be fulfilled before the end comes--we will have a "successful life". We remain
narrowly focused on the path ahead of us---as the cliff
gets closer and closer.
The Yogis see the whole thing as a form of play --
he eternal dance of Shiva---forms eternally being created and being dissolved.
When things fall apart in our world, when there is a fundamental crisis, and we are inconsolable, then is an invitation to
see our bodies, our lives, as participants in this coming and going of form and to identify with the
source of this process of forming and dissolving.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, September 18, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I agree very much with Adam, who wrote that having

I agree very much with Adam, who wrote that having a finite life is necessary because "If we lived forever then there would be no rush to do anything and the world would slow down to an almost unbearably slow rate that would cause boredom."
I feel it is as if we can only accept life fully after we have accepted our mortality. To accept the possibility that I might die any second now (which is improbable, but nevertheless a possibility) leaves no choice for me to accept my life as it is right now. To wait for 'more life' is a terrible waste of time - even if I die an old woman. Nobody gains more life, we only lose it.
As James Dean once said, "Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today."