What if People No Longer Want To Live Forever?
Ashima got a peek at her destiny when she was 13. She’ll live a long life, an astrologer predicted. Even though Ashima didn’t take this on blind faith, she was “scared.” The prospect of longevity wasn’t as tempting as her family made it out to be.
The Indian consciousness has long since imbibed a cultural fixation with living a long life. People pray for an everlasting lifespan on birthdays and big occasions. “Jeete Raho,” as the oft-used blessing goes. Indian palmists hint at the “lifeline,” an arc meant to determine our stories. This obsession has shaped much of human desire — shaping how we love, live, and understand death.
But“forever” is beginning to sound exhausting. To young Indians, the stressors of modern life play out endlessly. In swapping “forever” with “for now,” the individual lives we lead and the way we talk about death, evolves.
“I have known everything that life can give,” lamented the immortal crow to Alexander the Great. Success, love, joy. “Now I cannot die and I want to die.” Alexander returned without drinking from the fountain of immortality.
Alexander’s choice resonates today. In an experiment, Iddo Landau, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, asked thousands of people if they would take an “Immortality Pill” — a concoction that would not only defy death but also keep people from aging. Almost 70% of people were against the idea.
Recently, researchers found the upper limit of human life is on the rise; some even argue there is no limit to the human lifespan. Perhaps we’re finally living in a time where we can finally have what the heroes and villains alike have been chasing in our stories: From Gothel confining Rapunzel to a tower to use her golden locks for immortality or Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman revisiting a pit of immortality to recharge himself. Even Dumbledore once craved eternal life.
“What’s the point,” asks 23-year-old Gokul. “Look at the state of things around us, look at the standard of living — what’s the point in living long if we are going to be living like this?”
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Today, living forever sounds tedious, futile, and environmentally unsustainable. The Lord of the Rings’ franchise’s Bilbo Baggins was burdened with an unusually long life. He was torn over a similar dilemma. “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread,” said Bilbo.
There are also some intergenerational aspects to consider. New Scientist’s Richard Webb argued: “Imagine attempting to get old disgracefully while your parents were still around to see it.” According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, the average American isn’t interested in living forever or extending life spans much beyond. Or another survey that found only one in five adults in the UK would choose to live forever. “Just thinking that I have to work and save for another 100 years so that I can live somewhat comfortably does not really entice me,” a Quora user wrote.
We think of life as a gift — which is great until it begins feeling like a Russian doll.
In 1973, anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that much of human action is meant to evade and ignore the reality of death. But as expectations from individual lives change, the way people perceive death changes too. “I’m more accepting of the inevitability now. The fear of death is no longer there, which is kind of freeing — then you can talk about it more openly,” says Rhea, 25. A study found constructing stories and conversations around death helps people understand their experiences and themselves and “gives individuals a sense of predictability and control over their lives.”
People in the past — especially in India — have struggled to articulate their anxiety around death. Not talking about it in front of elders, for instance, constitutes “good manners.” But this also discourages any conversation about planning or preparing for it. If we don’t want to live forever, is there a way we want to die? “I want to go off quietly as a protest against the world,” Gokul says.
Most Indians consider it inauspicious to discuss death, much less prepare for it, a 2017 study out of the Tata Institute of Social Science showed. Ashima remembers discussing this with her partner; the two would prefer to exercise the right to die of their own free will. Rhea talked about her death with her friends and family. “They found it a little unnerving,” she says, understandably, because “death makes everyone nervous.” His parents always found it unsettling that when there was a death in the family, Gokul would think out loud about what would happen if he were to die; but they didn’t talk about this either.
But labeling death as a “bad omen” only eclipses one reality. Death can be comforting in others, for it anchors an irrefutable, undeniable truth.
In some forms of therapy, people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are advised to hold on to a universal truth — something undeniable, like “No matter what, the sun will rise in the East” — to serve as an anchor while dissociating. For a colleague, the comforting truth remains “One day, I will die.”
If life is a party, anticipating death perhaps triggers the worst kind of FOMO — of missing out forevermore. But people may no longer be worried about it. The real FOMO, then, is that of not living well.
A fixation with longevity also spills into how we live our everyday lives: people often don’t maximize their time or resources in the present, thinking they can do many things later (the spiel of saving until you’re 40 and then retiring). Kafka said the meaning of life is that it stops.
In the legend of Doctor Faustus, the doctor exchanges his soul for longer life. But what if we exchange a longer life for a meaningful one? Being unburdened by a larger mission of chasing a long life might alleviate the pressures on those grappling with burnout and exhaustion, for example. Listen to the yelly teenagers: Nobody wants to live through a climate crisis. No one lives to tell the tale after an 80-hour workweek. As the current generational anthem goes: “Here for a good time, not a long time.”
If people want to live forever, they tend to amass things because no one thinks of a time when they won’t be there. “Baad mein zarurat padhegi,” (you’ll need it later in life), is a common refrain in Indian households. “So you collect as much as you want, as much as you can. But because you are mass consuming everything, you’re putting a strain on yourself,” says Bindu Puri, a professor of Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University. At some point, you end up being surrounded by clutter — of the things you want to do, goals to achieve, adventures to try. But life can’t be hoarded; when death isn’t hushed away from discussion, people can find clarity.
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And what do we gain with this knowledge? Perhaps it’s the freedom to “try a lot of things, try your best to do something because the odds are so good that none of it means anything; that perversely it makes me feel free to try,” author Jia Tolentino proposed.
Ashima too finds herself focused on choices that suit her sensibilities, caring less about “restrictions we impose on ourselves to make our families happy.”
In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift talks of the Struldbruggs, immortals whom Gulliver assumes must be the happiest people ever. But he learns that “they’re bitter, crotchety grumps whose message for the rest of us is that living forever might be the harshest curse imaginable,” as a blog noted. Just like the Struldbruggs, people may “feel like foreigners in their own, ever-changing culture” with time, argues Iddo Landau. The desire for a “shorter life,” thus, responds to a desire for belongingness, of shaping cultural identity, of being kinder.
“It might lead to a culture where you value what you’re achieving, where you’re sympathetic to other people,” Puri notes. “Because you’re sharing this condition of human mortality with other people.”
In 1994, the host of the Miss USA competition asked Miss Alabama a now-familiar dinner-party question: “If you could live forever, would you want to?”
She responded: “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”