Facing Death, Affirming Life

Today, there are people seriously engaged with making human immortality an option. Technical challenges aside, however, one must ask whether the elimination of death would be desirable. Isn't death's inevitability what gives meaning to life?

Gabriel Bukobza
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Illustration by Netali Ron-Raz.
Illustration by Netali Ron-Raz.Credit: Illustration
Gabriel Bukobza

A Talmudic text relates that Rabbi Eliezer was disconsolate. His friend Rabbi Yohanan came to comfort him and to find out the cause of his depression. Did he feel he hadn’t studied enough Torah? Was it because he was abjectly poor? Because he had no sons? Rabbi Yohanan assailed his friend with uncompromisingly difficult questions, but Rabbi Eliezer dismissed all these conjectures. They were not the reason. Then why was he so downcast? “It is because of this beauty, which will be consigned to dust, that I am crying.” Hearing this, Rabbi Yohanan, who was known for his rare beauty, replied, “For that you have good reason to weep,” the text tells us (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, V, 72). And the two of them wept together. Indeed, there is no greater narcissistic wound than the recognition that “this beauty” – human life, body and mind – will one day rot in the ground.

Most people are terrified by the fact that life ends. For those who are not pathologically inclined, the thought that our body is destined to nourish worms is harrowing and repellent. Finality is frightening because it clashes with the effervescent thrust of life that impels us. Death, which writes a final, irrevocable finis to the story, is grasped as the antithesis of hope and to be rejected with disgust.

As our life expectancy rises, and the quality of life improves, we recoil more powerfully from death. It’s simple logic: Those for whom life is good are all the more fearful of losing what they have. If armies consisted solely of the ultra-rich, peace would reign in the world.

Life expectancy in the West has almost doubled during the past century. People are not only living longer, they are more protected and more secure. Most of the world’s inhabitants eat well, and quite a number of them eat abundantly. True, there are millions in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of southeastern Asia who are undernourished, but that is considered an exceptional – and reducible – phenomenon.

To make the point more vivid: Twice as many people worldwide suffer from obesity than from undernourishment. Dangerous diseases and epidemics have been eradicated. Even the levels of violence have fallen amazingly. A comprehensive study conducted by Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, found that we are living in the safest period in history. Though we are relentlessly bombarded with reports of terrorist attacks and disasters, he says, this represents a change in information accessibility and not in the true scale of events and dangers.

In his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker maintains that the number of violent incidents recorded in the world has decreased dramatically over the years. He shows, for example, that the rate of wars has plunged in the course of the past few centuries, and also that over the last 800 years the murder rates have declined from 30 per 100,000 inhabitants to 1 per every 100,000, on average. According to Pinker, over the past century, the probability of a person living to a ripe old age has been the highest it’s ever been, even if the appalling statistics of the two world wars are factored in.

One might think that people would sit back comfortably and enjoy the extra years and added security. Yet what we see is the opposite: Anxieties have grown. In such pleasant conditions, people want to live much longer – in fact, they don’t want to die at all. Is it a tenable proposition that we, the lords of nature, knowledge and technology, should remain as mortal as a common housefly? Accordingly, humankind has posited a new goal for itself, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in his most recent book, “The History of Tomorrow” (published in Hebrew, earlier this year): to find a way to defeat death and achieve an eternal life of bliss. Scientists and futurists, such as the talented American inventor Ray Kurzweil, are devoting their lives to finding a technical solution to what they perceive as the superfluous phenomenon of death. They say that thanks to developments in genetics, nanotechnology and medicine, we are just a step away from halting the aging process, curing all diseases and overcoming death.

The belief of Kurzweil and others dovetails with traditional Western concepts concerning eternal life. In contrast to adherents of the Eastern religions, who believe in spiritual change after death, the view in Judaism, Islam and Christianity is that one continues to be oneself in the next world. The individual does not decompose even after death and he can look forward to meeting all his relatives and dear ones anew.

In his “Critique of Practical Reason,” Immanuel Kant described the Western concept of immortality as a belief in “the endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being” (translation by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott). Kurzweil renders the same belief in contemporary language. He is intent on developing technology that will allow him to somehow leapfrog over the body’s limitations and pass into a dimension of immortality, thereby sparing himself the unpleasant business of rotting in the ground.

Death and power relations

Amid such a potent lust for life, death, it seems, can no longer appear as a subject for discussion without arousing antagonism. If it is defined as a target for modern science to conquer, it is best left alone until we get rid of it. But is it really the case that there is no longer a place for death, even in the light of the vision of the charismatic futurists? Are they truly convinced of their conception of immortality?

To begin with, it’s important to consider how death acquires meaning. Despite its being an absolute term that is counterpoised to the value of the “sanctity of life,” it is unable to elude the power relations that organize every facet of life. Just as economic power relations often insinuate themselves into human relationships, so too they fashion the way in which death is laden with meaning. Cost-benefit calculations and vested interests organize the emotional attitude toward death, with the result that not all deaths are equal, just as not all salaries are identical and not all love affairs are the same.

The death of the powerful or the well-connected is considered appalling and unnecessary, and everything possible will be done to avert it. Other deaths – of migrants from Africa who drown at sea, of laborers in Bangladesh who perish in a factory fire, or of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria killed in a civil war – will be experienced as almost neutral, less important information. In this sense, death comes to be organized within power relations like any other term – there are deaths that it’s worth making an effort to prevent and there are deaths that are meaningless – all depending on one’s location within the web of power.

It follows that in the future, if others will have to die so that the life of the wealthy can be extended – as a result, say, of working in difficult and dangerous conditions to produce special medicines – so be it. In other words, the idea of eradicating death is not egalitarian, and its implementation, if scientifically feasible, will not necessarily be humane but driven by force.

Furthermore, the approach that views death as a passing evil that needs to be done away with does not recognize that many deaths occur in order to sustain life. For one thing, in order to nourish an expanding, eternal humanity, prodigious amounts of protein will be necessary. Already today, the number of animals that are sacrificed in order to sate the hunger of the world’s seven billion people is inconceivable: Billions of mammals, birds and fish are put to death every year to that end. On top of this, the planet’s resources are being exploited to the hilt to enable life and growth for human beings. The longer people live, the more their world dies.

Kurzweil and his friends are focused on finding an effective technical solution for the purpose of prolonging their pleasant lives, but they are inattentive to the devastation and destruction that attend their very existence. The consequence, if they succeed in finding the elixir of life for which they yearn, may be a final and thorough annihilation of all other forms of life in the world. One form of death will disappear, but death in a different form will exact a greater price.

The day may come when death will indeed be eradicated, in the wake of some revolutionary innovation. However, we need to ask: Does humankind want to live without dying? Does death not possess traits that might have meaning for life? Albert Camus addressed this question profoundly in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where he wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (translation by Justin O’Brien). This is the dilemma of the self-aware individual, rendered succinctly by Shakespeare, too: “To be or not to be – that is the question.” Camus and Shakespeare coped with death in a manner completely different from Kurzweil. They did not try to escape it or deny its necessary existence, but instead invited it to a dialogue.

A conversation with death can generate answers relating to life. To begin with, it must be accepted that the answer to the question about choosing life might be negative. That is, an individual is unable to justify his own continued existence. This conclusion runs against every instinct and belief, but Camus wrote courageously that there are cases in which the individual admits that life is too much for him and that he can no longer bear it. In cases of profound misery, of sickness in which there is only agony and no remedy, of despair, the possibility of escape exists. Suicide annuls the prospect that things might get better, so it is unimaginable for anyone in whom an iota of optimism beats.

But for some, life is so intolerable that it is no longer worth living. In such cases, death has a place, being perceived by the sufferer as a possibility of redemption. It also allows one moment of control amid the chaos in which a person finds himself. Recently, a Belgian court ruled in favor of acceding to the request of a 24-year-old woman to undergo euthanasia, as she had suffered since childhood from severe depression. That is a grim choice that is not self-evident, but not without logic. Some people, who are perfectly lucid, do not wish to go on living.

Men are more prone to such troubles; the suicide rate among males in every age group is higher than that of women. The myth that men are more emotionally immune because they are supposedly disconnected from their feelings is nothing but a sexist tale. A variety of reasons can drive a man to the edge. For example, the feeling that he failed in the ultimate male task of providing a living – because he is fired, say, or experiences financial failure. Or, for example, if a meaningful relationship falls apart and produces an emotional upheaval and a sense of emptiness.

In other cases, a person might feel that the world was too violent with him, that he failed in life or that his dreams were disappointed. He might be undergoing inextricable suffering or pressure, or be unable to cope with a loss he experienced. According to Camus, the deeper psychic reason will be that he no longer finds meaning in existence. This is a state of “exile without remedy,” which has no place for memory of the past or hope for the future. One is in the heart of the absurd, where death is a possible way out for any person, male or female, who finds himself or herself in such circumstances.

From this point of view, we should not be surprised – or become outraged – if the next mental collapse in the wake of grim events in life stirs thoughts about ending it. It is not unnatural for loss of love, a severed relationship, the death of a loved one, a serious illness, a national tragedy or the like to stir in the heart of a feeling individual thoughts and sensations of grief so overwhelming that he will ponder that form of redemption. In this sense, death is the gateway out of exile. If it did not exist – concretely and in the consciousness – one could imagine the torments of life as a hell with no exit. It is precisely the fact of death’s existence that allows the mourner, the depressive or the chronic sufferer to be aware that there is always a possibility of ending the pain. He does not necessarily have to choose it, but its very existence and the fact that it’s talked about could be a source of hope for him.

In some cases, the suffering individual resorts to the act of “self-death” as an ultimate expression of protest against the world that inflicted suffering on him. Suicide is an act of violence against the self, but is sometimes used as a last jab at the world in order to enact an outcry and foment change. The most dramatic recent example on a world scale was that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian peddler who was caught selling his wares on the street without a permit. On December 17, 2010, a municipal inspector slapped him, spat on him and confiscated his meager belongings. Bouazizi went to submit his complaints to the governor, but got no response. Feelings of humiliation and helplessness surged to an intolerable intensity within him, and he set himself ablaze and died.

News of this tragic sequence of events traveled fast and ignited a conflagration that spread and became known as the Arab Spring. Ten days after Bouazizi’s death, the president of Tunisia fled the country to escape the angry masses. In such cases, death can bring a change for those who have remained alive, though there is never a guarantee of this.

In Israel, on July 14, 2012, Moshe Silman set himself on fire against the backdrop of the social-justice protest movement and personal economic distress. His death generated some reactions among the public and in the political arena, but these faded quickly.

The second question that might arise in the dialogue with death is the opposite of the first. This answer justifies life, but only after it has authentically confronted the idea of death and not fled from it. Camus says that death effectively looks at us and asks: For what purpose are you living? Is there anything sufficiently worthy that can justify life, in the light of the fact that death awaits you at the end of the road? Anyone who is able, amid the moments of absurdity, to find the will and the justification for existence in the face of loss, might discover that he has found a sweet purpose for living. Life that does not possess this kind of inner thinking still possesses beauty and agreeableness in the sheer fact of its being. However, a life that has been spiritually or mentally deepened, and which has also coped with the possibility of the end of life, might achieve a higher degree of consciousness.

The self as an illusion

In terms of our inner world, it can be said that coming to grips with the idea of finality in general, and the end of life in particular, hurtles one into the gloomiest caves of the psyche. Something similar occurs in serious illnesses and with the death of family members and loved ones. In all these cases we confront, as Freud wrote, the loss of the beloved object. The deep feeling of sadness that wells up when someone you loved and were devoted to leaves, is heightened in coping with real death. Paradoxically, however, that pain might stir life forces that are capable of coping with the act of parting from the beloved being, and can imbue existence with new meaning. Pain of this scale of intensity has the power to awaken the consciousness and render it sharp and alert, in a way that a comfortable life in which all our needs are provided for and in which there is no place for loss would not be capable of doing.

An in-depth engagement with the idea of death can lead one to enlightenment and genuine spiritual growth. According to the philosophies of the East, terror in the face of death can be eased if we understand and accept that the idea of the self is an illusion. Forgoing the imagined self – a difficult process in itself, and contrary to all Western logic – is experienced as a symbolic death which partakes of liberation and after which physical death is far less frightening, if at all. Afterward it is far easier to accept dying as menucha nechona – “perfect rest” – in the words of the Jewish prayer. If all is transient and if there is no attachment to anything, there is no need to be thrilled by the realization of a need or, by the same token, to be afraid of any conclusion or ending.

The Western individual, such as Kurzweil, fears death because he identifies absolutely with his success, his good life and his sense of self. A threat to any of those things leaves him feeling paralyzed. If he grasped that they are all passing and ephemeral, he would achieve a fluid consciousness that understands that “if life is good, death is also good.” In other words, you lose nothing on the day of your death, because there was nothing that was truly yours during your life.

But there is no need to go that far. Engagement with the possibility of the end of life can in itself liberate one from the fear of death through acceptance of reality, which becomes fraught with meaning. This is what happens at the end of the Talmudic story with which we began. Rabbi Yohanan asks Rabbi Eliezer, “Do you find these torments pleasant?” To which the latter replies, “Neither them nor their reward.” Whereupon Rabbi Yohanan extends a hand and helps him rise from his sickbed. In other words, sadness can be circumscribed simply because one is fed up with suffering. This is facilitated if there is someone in the milieu who can lend you a hand.

Camus, too, arrives at a life-affirming conclusion. To illustrate it, he invokes the story of the punishment of Sisyphus. The wretched Sisyphus is fated to role a monstrous boulder up a hill, see it roll back down to the bottom and repeat the action eternally. Probably no other story bespeaks less meaning and less hope. Yet Camus finds hope. Amid this absurd situation, Sisyphus has the freedom to choose to impart meaning to his life. He copes heroically with his punishment – and that is impressive and generates respect. He lives in this world, and as such has the choice to see beauty in every blade of grass and flower that he passes on the way up the hill and in every bird that passes over him in the sky. He has the right to hope that things will change, as no one can control the future. But above all, he has himself. Even in the midst of this absurdity, he himself still exists with all his beauty. As Camus sums up with characteristic optimism, we may assume that Sisyphus, despite his suffering, can be happy.

Gabriel Bukobza is a psychologist and a lecturer at both the Peres Academic Center and Tel Aviv University.