One of my family’s favorite movies is Stardust. At one point in the film one of the characters says, “King! For eternity!” He is obviously very excited about this prospect, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. But while we were watching it the other day for the umpteenth time, one of my kids said, “well, that’s horrible!” To which I said, “Yeah. The idea of being king forever is not at all something I would want.” My child responded, “Oh! That’s not what I meant. What I meant was that it would hurt everyone else if this person was king, and especially king forever.” Hm. There are so many stories of people searching for immortality. But it seems that most of these were written by people who are fairly young, who haven’t lived through the many, many changes and challenges and tragedies of life.
But my own experience is that life gets harder as we get older in many ways. There is grief that compounds grief as we lose those we love. Our bodies present more and more physical challenges and limitations as we age. The number of changes in society and in the world that we have witnessed and experienced grows, and the challenges to our worldview and thinking become more numerous even as our ability to adjust our thinking and change our ways of interacting with others in the world seems to diminish.
I’ve lived through a lot of hard stuff. And I’ve lived through so many changes in our world and in our thinking and in our society. I know it is only a piece of what I will live through. I don’t believe I am resilient enough that I could continue to handle an infinite number of losses and challenges and changes. And more, each one is difficult, painful, and tends to reawaken the other crises that I’ve experienced, compounding them as it will.
Additionally, the idea of doing ONE job (being king for example) for all eternity is also an unbelievably unpleasant idea to me. To do the same things each day, whatever that may be, because your job requires it, your life requires it, forever? A working life of 45-50 years seems plenty to me to spend doing one job. Additionally, to always have people see you in one way, one role, to always treat you as a person in that one role: no thank you. Not for me.
We think we want to live forever when we are young. We also tend to think we are indestructible, that we will not die, or certainly not anytime soon. And this is appropriate. We have so much to look forward to in life. But as we get older, there are growing pains, challenges and restrictions. Yes, there is still much to look forward to. At the same time, it is far too common in my experience that the people I visit in the elder years of their life just want to know why they are still alive and proclaim regularly that they are ready to go, that it is time. We spend so much energy focusing on how to live longer, and we forget to focus on how to live more fully, more deeply with the time we have now.
Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. And frankly, a long life that is lived past the time of understanding the world, past the time of enjoying one’s body, past the time of really being able to LIVE in whatever way is meaningful to each of us, is not something I would ever wish for myself or for any of my loved ones.
I am grateful that medical professionals are now exploring this reality more. Books such as Atul Gwandi’s book Being Mortal are helpful steps towards people really making decisions about what is important to them during life so that they can choose what they are willing to suffer at the end of life as well as the point at which it is time to stop accepting medical interventions and to let go of life. But I think these steps away from simply postponing death, and instead choosing to live a life that is full and meaningful only for as long as it really is full and meaningful for the one living it – these steps are small and will take time.
One step towards that may be to stop glorifying the idea of immortality and stop telling fairy tales that idolize the idea of immortality. It just isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.