meditations on existence
I've thought a lot about death and existence lately. Maybe it's my recent 24th birthday and accompanying quarter-life crisis, but I think it's partly just that lately I've been thinking about what it all means, or life examined in the context of death.
I recently stumbled upon this great Medium essay called "The Primal Ache," and there are so many stunningly beautiful passages, but this one is my favorite:
A broken jug cannot hold the water that pours into it. We are broken, too, just like that, given more than we can bear, unable to contain or enclose or hold onto life. All that we can do is surrender to not being able to. But we are not alone in our brokenness, you and me. The whole universe is broken just like that, too. The stars explode. They cannot contain their fire. The rain pours because the sky cannot contain it, either. The soil is split apart by the shoot. All around us, we see: to exist is to be given more than one can bear, and so it is not just the human condition. It is the essence of being.
I love this because it perfectly articulates the universal feeling of the sometimes overwhelming weight of living, of simply just being, of existing in a flood of sensory experiences. There's a beautiful tension in longing for the things we want, and craving things that we don't yet know we want. While it would be easier to live an unexamined life, it is in our nature to seek beyond our scope of knowledge, to contemplate our own humanity and pursue the unknown. Our natural state is one of overflowing, of mixed emotions and thoughts bleeding together like watercolors. I think that's why some people consider death to be a release. Not as a macabre form of escapism, but as as kind of peaceful finality; a well-deserved state of repose, free from the noise, from the too-muchness of the world.
A podcast by one of Madwell's ACDs called I Heart Dead Things (#comefortheskullsstayforthelols), echoes this sentiment. It discusses all things death and death-related (for example, did you know there's a secret island off the coast of Manhattan—full of dead people?), and advertises itself as "death-chill," encouraging people to confront and accept their mortality "early and often," because they believe that this is a necessary part of a more purposeful life.
This poses another question: is purpose only created by limitation? Two of my favorite YouTubers, Kurzgesagt and CGP Grey, collaborated on a two-part video series, ruminating on the potential expansion of life and attempting to dispel the myth that aging and death should be normalized:
Because the Reaper comes for all eventually, humans have formed a relationship with Death perverse. Like a hostage who grows to love their kidnapper, humans tell themselves that the handful of decades the Reaper gives them is just the right length, that living a truly long and healthy life would get boring and would be unnatural, and imagine all the problems if Death took a holiday? And so, the Reaper of Age whispers that he is your friend ... "Death is a part of life," he whispers. "Death gives life meaning." This is madness. Misery doesn't give happiness meaning; happiness is meaning itself. If you tortured people to make them better appreciate the pleasures of life, you would be a monster.
If you had to choose right now, how long would you want to live? 80 years? 90? 120? Longer? And do you think you'll change your mind once you reach that age? ... But first: if we could, should we end aging? Is this a good idea? The end of aging, or life extension, makes many people uncomfortable ... Life extension is really just another phrase for medicine. All the doctors are doing is trying to prolong life and minimize suffering ... Trying to stop aging from happening is not less natural than transplanting a heart, treating cancer with chemotherapy, using antibiotics, or vaccines.
Aging is is a genuine human fear, and the root cause of ageism, mostly because we fear the loss of control, the loss of independence, and the imminence of death. Kurzgesagt and CGP Grey argue that aging is actually a degenerative disease, that can and should be treated, not a natural part of life. This is a very interesting angle, because it asserts that your reasons for not wanting to live forever are based on flawed premises. First, that death is inevitable. Second, that you as a person will deteriorate mentally and physically over the course of your life. And third, that your existence is only validated by your mortality. And the fact is that one day, aging may be unnecessary and death avoidable, and we will be forced to grapple with the concept of eternal life.
And this brings me to my last point, because eternal life is no longer merely an idea—it's now a reality thanks to artificial intelligence. Britt introduced me to this cool CNN mini-series called Mostly Human, a study of the intersection of technology and humanity. The first episode, "Dead, IRL," proposes the virtual extension of life via chatbot. Immediately when I read this article, I thought of Black Mirror's "Be Right Back" episode. I couldn't help but think, If that were me, would I do it? Would I want to? A 21st-century take on the age-old question: Would you want to live forever?
I understand the temptation, and I can see the value in using downloaded consciousness (or something similar) as a coping mechanism. But I also don't think that's how life works. Sometimes you don't get closure and sometimes you don't always have the answers. And to pretend otherwise, to digitally immortalize ourselves in soulless vessels, feels almost sacrilegious. For individuals, it can be a saving grace, a way of dealing with the loss of a loved one and filling a void. For society, it represents a shift in our attitudes toward death and dying.
Death is still very much a taboo topic in social conversation today. The only people I've had genuinely good discussions with about death are those who have also suffered some kind of loss or trauma. Most people are very uncomfortable with it in everyday conversation. But I think this is detrimental in a lot of ways.
First, it creates a culture fearful of death. Death is a part of life, whether we like it or not. Accepting the reality of our death forces perspective. And talking about death shouldn't be morbid or shameful.
It also delegitimizes grief. Euphemisms like "passed away" only serve to heighten our discomfort around the actual concept; they were created to distance ourselves from the experience of emotion, and this sends the implicit message that our thoughts and feelings are somehow invalid or inappropriate because they make others uneasy.
And that is the root of the problem with using AI to create virtual personas of the dead—it ultimately trivializes death. It disregards the need to grieve and dismisses the idea of death as natural experience of life.
I don't think eternal life is necessarily a good thing. I still believe that our lives are meaningful because we create meaning for the sake of pursuing meaning; because we exist, not despite it. Even if we could live forever, I don't know if we would want to. Mostly, I feel like, we would be exhausted. Not from old age, but just from the sheer weight of our existence, the primal ache. I think we're meant to live limited lives, to exist only in fleeting instances in the grand scheme of the universe. And that doesn't have to be a tragedy.