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Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Folly of Immortality

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” — Vladimir Nabokov
When my faith ended in late December 2013 I felt relief more than anything else. It was shocking, of course, but still I felt unburdened. There was a sense of loss over the de-enchantment of the universe in my perception, and perhaps some fear over feeling I was ‘going it alone,’ but then I found awe in the natural order and comfort in knowing that all those times I thought a god had helped me, I’d made it through on my own (or with the help of friends and family who actually exist). Most notably, my fear of death subsided dramatically with the understanding that it really is an end.
As an atheist and a Humanist, I hold out no hope for myself or others of an afterlife in which consciousness — or even in some unconscious state — persists. The world will continue to exist, but I will not as a distinct entity. My psychic being will be utterly extinguished and my material form will break down (I plan to be cremated, so that should speed up the process considerably).
That said, there are some of a naturalistic mindset who attempt to substitute some form of immortality for that which traditional religions often promise. Personally, I find them all foolish and to be a waste of time. Here are several that you might encounter.
First, the indestructibility of matter. It is said that because the body decomposes and its elements are recycled in nature, there is a sort of immortality to be had there. I even heard a Jesuit priest at a conference claim as much in his understanding of ‘resurrection’ (baffling as that might be). Given the fluid nature of our bodies, this concept seems rather empty. I mean, I’ve trimmed my fingernails and toenails countless thousands of times in my life, and I don’t feel particularly attached to the leavings. Why should it matter more that the matter that makes up my body at the point of death will cycle back out into the ecosystem?
Second, DNA. We’re told that immortality is to be found in our children, because we pass our genes along to them. Well, I have one child through adoption and another through procreation, and I feel no more ‘continued’ in the latter than I do in the former. That is to say, I personally don’t continue at all in my children. The genes that make me up came from my parents, and theirs from their parents, and so on. If you go far enough back (and you don’t have to go back too far for this to happen), you have ancestors who contributed no DNA to you. Think about that for a bit. Eventually your and my DNA will be in shreds spread across hundreds of thousands of people, assuming you or I have progeny that reproduce.
Third, influence. Somehow fame is supposed to be counted as immortality. This seems rather useless and fleeting. While Michael Jackson remains famous after death, he also remains very much dead. Whether or not he is remembered makes no difference to him, and given enough time his fame will be reduced to a name and a collection of his works…and then eventually even those will be lost. The same could be said of Plato, or Joan of Arc, or any number of other notable figures of human history. It’s as Marcus Aurelius observed in book 4 of his Meditations:
“All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer’s words, they are ‘lost to sight alike and hearsay.’ What, after all, is immortal fame? And empty, hollow thing.”
The biblical book of Ecclesiastes even opens in agreement, in chapter 1, verse 11 of the New International Version:
“No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”
Fourth and finally, institutional immortality. By founding companies, clubs, or even churches some are said to have obtained immortality. Henry Ford lives on in Ford Motor Company, and Walt Disney in The Walt Disney Company. Do they really? Their names are on the signs and letterhead, and their life stories are retold from time to time, but what continues to exist is a business composed of thousands of employees who come and go over time. Likewise, businesses can be bought and sold, merged with other businesses, and even pivot into completely different fields. These men and others like them have no doubt left a mark on human history, but they are still dead and gone.
As I said above, I hold no hope of immortality of any kind. What, then, do I live for? Again, Marcus Aurelius:
“To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin.”
And Ecclesiastes chapter 9, verse 10:
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
Meaning is something that we make as human beings, and what I make of my life must ultimately please and satisfy me. I have come to see ‘the good life’ as something to be found in the moderated pursuit of pleasure combined with the reasons practice of the cardinal virtues. Other than wishing to contribute in my own small way to the good of humanity’s present and future, I expect no legacy. My body will become dust and ash and my name ultimately forgotten. That has to be okay, because it is simply reality.

"This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended."Conan O'Brien