Ubasute (姥捨てlit. “abandoning an old woman”) refers to the custom allegedly performed in Japan in the distant past, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a mountain, or some other remote, desolate place, and left there to die, either by dehydration, starvation, or exposure. The practice was allegedly most common during times of drought and famine, and was sometimes mandated by feudal officials.
Ubasute has left its mark on Japanese folklore, where it forms the basis of many legends, poems, and koans. In one Buddhist allegory, a son carries his mother up a mountain on his back. During the journey, she stretches out her arms, catching the twigs and scattering them in their wake, so that her son will be able to find the way home.
A poem commemorates the story:
In the depths of the mountains,
Who was it for the aged mother snapped
One twig after another?
Heedless of herself
She did so
For the sake of her son
Though I have spent many an hour pondering the philosophical nature of death, I have tried to not elaborate on the grisly details. I will say that like most, I would prefer to go in a peaceful manner. On bold days though, I wonder if there would be a difference in meeting death awake or asleep.
It has been speculated that a great deal of the most potent psychedelic known and created by the human brain, DMT, is released at the moment of death. And it has been further suggested that this influx is responsible for NDEs and even may act as a mechanism to release the soul from the body. For these reasons, whether atheist, nihilist, or spiritual, I would not want to rob myself of that experience. It could be the last thing we will ever witness, stretching out into a seemingly infinite moment, or it could be the difference between moving on to the next realm and wandering the Earth as a lost soul for aeons.
The brain would need to remain relatively intact for this process to ensue. What happens to the poor individuals who die in gruesome circumstances that destroy the skull? If holding to the perspective that the afterlife is simply a DMT death trip, do they just blip out of existence forever with no inner vision to send them off? These inquiries are shadowed in mysteries we may never be able to solve.
For the curious, I highly recommend checking out the research of Rick Strassman MD. He was truly ahead of his time, being the first to break the decades long ban on government sanctioned human research with psychedelics back in the 90s, and with intravenously administered DMT no less. His ideas have been conveyed in the exquisitely mind-bending book and documentary, The Spirit Molecule.
What lies beyond the event horizon of death. To its merit though, it has also endlessly inspired and motivated me to confront life and find joy in the smallest details as well as the larger masterpiece we each contribute to simply by being.
…you have lived through the worst and survived, and when others see and have come to rely on that strength, it is the hardest thing to admit life can still break you, or come close to it. I have lost people and experienced some of the most insane situations of my life this week and though a friend remarked, “I can’t believe how calm you are, even now.” I hate feeling that I cannot bear the silence of being alone. I cannot bear realizing that though within I have been in far worst places, that I do not want to yet again confront another trial of the soul. I want out. I want peace.
Imagine yourself dead. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case, you are still conscious and observing the scene. In reality, you can no more envision what it is like to be dead than you can visualize yourself before you were born. Death is cognitively nonexistent, and yet we know it is real because every one of the 100 billion people who lived before us is gone. As Christopher Hitchens told an audience I was in shortly before his death, “I’m dying, but so are all of you.” Reality check.
In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012), British philosopher and Financial Times essayist Stephen Cave calls this the Mortality Paradox. “Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible,” Cave suggests. We see it all around us, and yet “it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.”
The attempt to resolve the paradox has led to four immortality narratives: Staying alive: “Like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.” Resurrection: “The belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.” Soul: The “dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity.” Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact or children.
All four fail to deliver everlasting life. Science is nowhere near reengineering the body to stay alive beyond 120 years. Both religious and scientific forms of resurrecting your body succumb to the Transformation Problem (how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death?) and the Duplication Problem (how would duplicates be different from twins?). “Even if DigiGod made a perfect copy of you at the end of time,” Case conjectures, “it would be exactly that: a copy, an entirely new person who just happened to have the same memories and beliefs as you.” The soul hypothesis has been slain by neuroscience showing that the mind (consciousness, memory and personality patterns representing “you”) cannot exist without the brain. When the brain dies of injury, stroke, dementia or Alzheimer’s, the mind dies with it. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul.
That leaves us with the legacy narrative, of which Woody Allen quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” Nevertheless, Cave argues that legacy is the driving force behind works of art, music, literature, science, culture, architecture and other artifacts of civilization. How? Because of something called Terror Management Theory. Awareness of one’s mortality focuses the mind to create and produce to avoid the terror that comes from confronting the mortality paradox that would otherwise, in the words of the theory’s proponents—psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski—reduce people to “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”
Maybe, but human behavior is multivariate in causality, and fear of death is only one of many drivers of creativity and productivity. A baser evolutionary driver is sexual selection, in which organisms from bowerbirds to brainy bohemians engage in the creative production of magnificent works with the express purpose of attracting mates—from big blue bowerbird nests to big-brained orchestral music, epic poems, stirring literature and even scientific discoveries. As well argued by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in The Mating Mind (Anchor, 2001), those that do so most effectively leave behind more offspring and thus pass on their creative genes to future generations. As Hitchens once told me, mastering the pen and the podium means never having to dine or sleep alone.
Given the improbability of the first three immortality narratives, making a difference in the world in the form of a legacy that changes lives for the better is the highest we can climb up Mount Immortality, but on a clear day you can see forever.
(via Scientific American)
Death is good. Death clears away old people to make way for new people and ideas. Death makes sure there aren’t too many of us on the planet at once. Mortality is our condition, and as meaning-makers, we cannot but live through the lens of knowing we must die. Death is just too important to kill.
So efforts to postpone death are misguided and unethical. People who try to fend of death are being selfish, are in denial, and are pouring money down the drain for cockamamy schemes to preserve their frozen heads for some fingers-crossed future, which will never arrive. At the same time, we shouldn’t letpeople die, particularly (and ironically) if they really want to. Choosing death is untenable. It’s against nature. No, death is good only when death decides it’s ready for you.
Or so go the arguments of many who oppose anti-aging technology.
But just because we accept death as good and necessary, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to say the same about aging. Can we argue for anti-aging technology, for 2,000-year lifespans of perpetual youth, and admit death can be good at the same time? Not only can we; we must.
We can accept death yet also seek to live vastly longer, healthier, and happier. Death is good, but so too is a long, long, long life. We can attain long lives of quality by rejecting extreme “life-saving measures,” embracing euthanasia, and accepting that there are just some things we cannot cure. Death has got to be our closest kept enemy if we want to be ageless. Baffling as it may seem, wanting to live to be a thousand years old is inextricably connected to the ability to decide when it’s time to give up the ghost.
Pace Kurzweil, I presume I won’t live more than 110 years; more than likely it’ll be closer to 80. There is a good chance that before I hit that lower number I’ll get a disease that corrodes my brain (e.g., Alzheimer’s) or my organs (e.g., cancer), that my body will begin to kill itself (e.g., auto-immune disorders), or that I’ll be injured in some catastrophic way. The problem is that most of us simply aren’t exposed to enough friends and family members to get an idea of what battles are worth fighting.
But doctors are. And how do they deal with end of life? They often let their lives end without a fight.
In his excellent piece “How Doctors Die,” Ken Murray gives a clear perspective on dying:
Almost all medical professionals have seen what we call “futile care” being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. The patient will get cut open, perforated with tubes, hooked up to machines, and assaulted with drugs. All of this occurs in the Intensive Care Unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist. I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, “Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me.” They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped “NO CODE” to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.
Hell is being kept alive. We intuit this in every argument against immortality.
Consider this sad rehashing of the Eternal Old-age Argument by Paul Root Wolpe a bioethicist at NASA and Emory University, uncritically written up by Jason Gots at Big Think. The argument presumes we would sacrifice quality for duration. Living longer than our current average of 70-some-odd years would be problematic because we’d just be old, decrepit, and living in nursing homes longer. I’ve always marveled at the myriad ways in which some bioethicists construct overblown arguments against straw men representing longevity. Wolpe does an amazing job of extrapolating all the possible negative consequences of a form of longevity enhancement for which no reasonable person is arguing.
All reasonable arguments for life-extension argue that our enemy is aging, not death. Anti-aging researchers like Aubrey de Grey are trying to discover ways to expand the youthful middle of our lives, not the unlivable end. Life extension happens by delaying old age for as long as possible.
Which would you prefer,
I would happily give up a decade of total life for a vastly more youthful life overall.
The critical piece is that anti-aging medicine would likely also extend the reduced quality years. So we need an option to avoid futile care and the high-cost cruelty it creates. It is here we welcome our good friend Death. We now have demonstrable proof that there is no “euthanasia slippery slope” as fear-mongered. We know that, given the choice, many doctors have a good idea when to say die. Thus, in a world where anti-aging technology is a reality, being able to maturely and rationally assess if a life of quality can be preserved without undo suffering is essential. And if life has become too burdensome, the ability to volitionally end it must be an option. Fight aging at every turn, but know that death is still a part of the process.
In accepting death as the partner of super-longevity, we realize all the benefits of a preternatural youthful life without the three great fears associated with deathlessness: endless old age, a cultural inability for the new to displace the old, and a loss of meaning.
Death, coupled with anti-aging, is something to shoot for.
“Salt seems to possess a close relation with human life beyond time and space. Moreover, especially in Japan, it is indispensable in the death culture. After my sister’s death, what I began to do in order to accept this reality was examine how death was dealt with in the present social realm. I posed several related themes for myself such as brain death or terminal medical care and picked related materials accordingly. I was interested in the fact that salt is used in funerals for its subtle transparency. Gradually I came to a point where the salt in my work might have been a part of some creature that supported their lives. I believe salt enfolds the memory of life. We feel sorrow and despair when someone close to us passes away; we realize that we can not speak again. This kind of loss can be lessened by the memories that remain. The process of my work involves determining the distance between those memories and myself.”
Reflect on this in the literal sense before you are tempted to speak of legacy. In that it carries its own inexorable revelation. The indelible is intangible.
Memento Mori Vita Brevis Breviter In Brevi Finietur
“Remember you must die, life is short, and shortly it will end.”
Illustration by Mathiole.
Hang on tight while we grab the next page