Immortality: empathy, mindfulness, and gratitude

Stephen Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization investigates whether it just might be possible to live forever and whether we should want to. But it also makes a powerful argument, which is that it’s our very preoccupation with defying mortality that drives civilization.”

Several of my friends and I are caring for very ill and elderly friends and relations. Both my mother-in-law and the last of my mother’s friends are in their 98th year, and in surprisingly good health, allowing for problems with sight, hearing, and mobility. We are watching them fade away. We know they are afraid, not of death, but of a long painful dying.

Today I am  going to link to a thought provoking article I bookmarked a while ago about this new book.  I found the review from reason.com on that favourite website,  Arts and Letters Daily.  Here are some excerpts… click on the title to read the whole article… it is worth your time!

Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

The new book Immortality warns against the quest for eternal life

Since the immortality narratives fail, we are still left with our fear of death and non-existence. To overcome our fears and to escape the clutches of the Mortality Paradox Cave advocates turning to what he calls the Wisdom narrative. He thinks that he has made the case that a genuinely unending life would most likely be terrible. However, he acknowledges that this realization is unlikely to convince people that it’s great to be dead. So the next step toward wisdom is to accept the notion that the “fear of being actually dead is nonsensical.” And the final step is to cultivate virtues that undermine our will to live forever and thus reduce our existential angst.

The model for realizing that the fear of death is nonsensical is the Greek philosopher Epicurus who wrote, “While we are, death is not; when death is come, we are not.” Cave interprets Epicurus as chiefly arguing that we should not fear the state of being dead. Being dead is nothing, so why fear nothing? Cave asserts that wisdom comes when we realize “that we can never be dead, that fearing being dead is therefore a nonsense.” Oddly, I don’t think that I (and many others) suffer from Cave’s Mortality Paradox—I can imagine non-existence. Consequently, with regard to death there is nothing to fear but nothing itself.

In order to further undermine our fear of death Cave counsels that we adopt the three virtues of empathy, mindfulness, and gratitude. Empathy reduces our fear of the death by shifting the focus from ourselves; mindfulness encourages us to enjoy the present moment; and gratitude makes us conscious of what an incredible stroke of luck it is to be alive in the first place. It seems to me that the cultivation of these virtues is valuable in its own right, and if such cultivation happens to reduce one’s fear of death then that’s a nice bonus.

Jacques Brel, the French singer and poet, wrote beautiful and compelling lyrics about serious issues and social concerns. I went on line to find a song I remember about an old woman sitting alone in her rocking chair, listening to a ticking clock, and waiting to die. From Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris, I had used it in my grade thirteen class when I taught Margaret Laurence’s wonderful novel, The Stone Angel. I did not find that song, but these three are very relevant.

In Tango Funebre, Brel envisions his hypocritical friends and family at the time of his death…and decides to live now.

In Les Vieux he sensitively describes the diminished quality of life of the very old.

Brel’s song, Le Moribond is a humorous 1961 song about a dying man’s farewell to his friend, his priest, his unfaithful wife and her lover.  You will recognize the English cover as “Seasons in the Sun”… here wrecked soundly (bad pun) by the Beach Boys. Both the mood and the lyrics are very different. The French lyrics follow the clip.

Adieu l’Émile je t’aimais bien
Adieu l’Émile je t’aimais bien tu sais
On a chanté les mêmes vins
On a chanté les mêmes filles
On a chanté les mêmes chagrins
Adieu l’Émile je vais mourir
C’est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais
Mais je pars aux fleurs la paix dans l’ame
Car vu que tu es bon comme du pain blanc
Je sais que tu prendras soin de ma femme

(Chorus)
Je veux qu’on rie
Je veux qu’on danse
Je veux qu’on s’amuse comme des fous
Je veux qu’on rie
Je veux qu’on danse
Quand c’est qu’on me mettra dans le trou

Adieu Curé je t’aimais bien
Adieu Curé je t’aimais bien tu sais
On n’était pas du même bord
On n’était pas du même chemin
Mais on cherchait le même port
Adieu Curé je vais mourir
C’est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais
Mais je pars aux fleurs la paix dans l’ame
Car vu que tu étais son confident
Je sais que tu prendras soin de ma femme
(Chorus)

Adieu l’Antoine je t’aimais pas bien
Adieu l’Antoine je t’aimais pas bien tu sais
J’en crève de crever aujourd’hui
Alors que toi tu es bien vivant
Et même plus solide que l’ennui
Adieu l’Antoine je vais mourir
C’est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais
Mais je pars aux fleurs la paix dans l’ame
Car vu que tu étais son amant
Je sais que tu prendras soin de ma femme
(Chorus)

Adieu ma femme je t’aimais bien
Adieu ma femme je t’aimais bien tu sais
Mais je prends le train pour le Bon Dieu
Je prends le train qui est avant le tien
Mais on prend tous le train qu’on peut
Adieu ma femme je vais mourir
C’est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais
Mais je pars aux fleurs les yeux fermés ma femme
Car vu que je les ai fermés souvent
Je sais que tu prendras soin de mon ame
(Chorus)

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