by “Normal Dan” (Daniel Liechty of Normal IL)
Like all species, human beings are driven by the urge to continue living. We usually call it the survival instinct. But because our species conceptualizes death as finitude, and can think abstractly and symbolically, the urge for continued life quickly morphs into what Ernest Becker saw as the psychological “denial of death” and an urge for symbolic, if not actual immortality. We are literally animated by an heroic struggle against death in all our ventures.
But what if that underlying wish were granted, we were immortal beings and there were no human death? I think it is instructive to at least consider that if there were no death, if our lives just went on and on and on, human life itself would be devalued and soon lose its deepest meaning. Think of all you would like to do in the next 10 years. Now imagine you had 10,000 years to accomplish it, or 10 million. Would we be happy just doing the same things over and over and over again? Sure, we would all probably love a decade or two more than our allotted 3 score and ten. But endless life? Would not life at some point become rather boring and tiresome?
I remember a character in the Star Trek series, the godlike but impish character named Q, who came from an immortal and omnipotent species called the Q-Continuum. He was totally fascinated by the human species because of their need to find meaning in everything. For a long time he couldn’t understand it and would purposely create chaotic situations just to watch Captain Picard and the other humans squirm. I remember as kid spending long hours messing up ant hills with a stick, fascinated to watch the ants run around in confusion and then slowly rebuild the hill. Q was initially something like that, only we humans were his ants. How does the saying go? “Evil is a robust child.”
But as Q got to know Captain Picard and humans better, he recognized that their urge for meaning was not so much a deficit but rather the very thing that made them human, and that furthermore, this urge for meaning stemmed directly from their mortality, the one aspect of being human that Q could not experience. In one memorable episode, Q let Picard experience what life in the Q-Continuum was like–not directly, which would have been impossible, but by creating an illusory world which conveyed at the human level of perception the basic idea. The illusory world Q created to express on the human level what life in the Q-Continuum was like was that of a series of quaint and beautiful little houses in desert environment, in which very beautiful and well-dressed people sit in rocking chairs on the front porches, staring endlessly out across the barren landscape. All their desires and needs are already so totally fulfilled, they are no longer even aware of having desires or needs. They don’t really speak with each other because they all already know the same things. On first impression life is beautiful, but soon one is overcome with the realization that it is also just plain boring. If I remember correctly, Q actually voluntarily took on mortality at one point just to escape the boredom, an interesting take on the theme of divine incarnation if there ever was one!
The meditation on death in the Reform service book of American Judaism suggests that death and mortality is the “tax” we pay for meaning in life. It is exactly because life is limited that it is precious, sweet, and not to be wasted. I am not advocating some sort of Goth romance with death. I don’t even quite want to say that we should welcome Death. But perhaps we can come to befriend and appreciate our mortality as a blessed state, a gift we have been given. Or at least set that somewhere ahead of us as a goal for our maturing spirituality.