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
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.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember your mortality”, “Remember you must die” or “Remember you will die” It names a genre of artistic work which varies widely, but which all share the same purpose: to remind people of their own mortality. The phrase has a tradition in art that dates back to antiquity.
Late nights are in my blood, I don’t think I’ll ever be the early to bed sort. However, late nights followed by minimal sleep… nothing like missing the basics (Food, sleep, standard health—I’m about to strike out on all three.) to start making you feel your age. Getting the feeling I might turn narcoleptic with the advancing years… Also experiencing the painful reminder of why I quit the coffee habit. Ow. Too bad this isn’t a crawl back under the covers kind of day. I was tempted, for a moment. Life must go on and there are things that need doing. Suck it up, sugar.
Stealing a moment of reflection, though. I’m allowed that much. Definitely in need of a few hugs and a little love right now. I think we all get a little scared when we start feeling time creep up on us. All the more reason to make each moment count.
And you know what, I did just that. Every creak and ache of today was paid in spades. Got in a little soul shaking last night and finally busted the dancing dry spell. I really needed that. Pure euphoria. You know something magical is at work when you walk away glowing. For the first time in a long while a genuine peace of mind had returned. Brief, but not without making its mark. I have hope. I know I will get through the challenges before me. Where there is a will, there is a way.
What effect do thoughts of death have on a typical person’s desire for sex? The short answer is that it depends. Armed with insight from terror management theory and attachment theory, Gurit Birnbaum and her colleagues have made a start unpicking the detail of when and for whom death is an aphrodisiac.
Research on terror management theory has shown that people respond to mortality reminders by bolstering their own cultural view, derogating opposing views, and shoring up their self-esteem. By this account, the effect of death on libidinous desire will depend on the meaning that sex has for a person.
An initial study with 36 women and 40 men in Israel found that thinking about death led the men, but not the women, to say that they’d be more likely (compared with controls who thought about a dentist visit) to take part in a casual, one-night stand with a person they’d met at a pick-up bar. Perhaps, the researchers reasoned, this is because cultural norms dictate that ‘sexual conquests’ can be a self-esteem boost for men, but less so for women.
A follow-up was similar to the first except the 163 Californian participants were asked to imagine a potential one-night in a more romantic context, after a candle-lit dinner and engaging conversation. In this case, thoughts of death led both men and women to say that they’d be more likely than controls to go ahead with the one-night stand, thus showing how a subtle change in sexual symbolism can alter the relationship between morbid thoughts and sexual desire.
This idea was supported in a third study with 89 men and women who were primed with thoughts of death before considering their willingness to have either physical, hedonistic sex with a long-term partner or romantic, loving sex. This time, thoughts of death, compared with thoughts of a dental visit, increased participants’ desire for loving, romantic sex, but not purely physical sex. In fact, there was a slight trend for participants to be put off this latter kind of sex, perhaps because morbid thoughts make some people want to escape their animal nature, not be reminded of it.
Lastly, Birnbaum’s team explored the role of attachment style in all this, leading to some complex results. This time, morbid thoughts increased most people’s overall sexual desire, unless they had an anxious attachment style (characterised by clingy behaviour driven by self-doubt). For these anxious types, when morbid thoughts did lead to sexual desire it was for reasons of relationship insecurity - i.e. to have sex with a partner as a way to cement the relationship. By contrast, for participants with an avoidant attachment style (characterised by emotional distance and self-reliance) morbid thoughts led to increased desire for sex that would bolster self-estem. For men with an avoidant attachment style, this meant a desire for casual sex.
Taken together the research paints a complex picture in which the effect of death-related thoughts on people’s libido depends on the meaning that sex has for them. In turn this meaning is shaped by cultural norms and a person’s attachment style. ‘Although the present research is an important step toward shedding light on the dual potential of sex for both joy and distress,’ the researchers said, ‘more research is needed to elucidate its contextual determinants and the psychological mechanisms regulating its expression.’
via Research Digest
BIRNBAUM, G., HIRSCHBERGER, G., and GOLDENBERG, J. (2011). Desire in the face of death: Terror management, attachment, and sexual motivation. Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01298.x
What else more greatly inspires the actualization of our full potential than our mortality?
“Do we die alone? When the realm of our consciousness ceases to exist, does that single flame go out or do others follow?
To be frank, I am just curious to expand on the isolation that death is associated with.”
At the moment of birth a window between non-individuality and separability opens. The cohesion of soul and matter is a traumatic experience, a wondrous singularity. Perhaps we come into this life anew, forgetting everything from before. Perhaps there is nothing from before to forget.
We come from the abyss, and once it is all said and done, we will return to it. What leaves us in the throes of existential angst is the uncertainty over whether this return is an end in itself or merely a prelude to another dream of form. The question of death is a lifelong mystery. Since the first stone-sparked fires of our ancestors, man has wandered through the abstract and wondered about the unknown.
In many cultures the final phase of an individual’s life is revered with wisdom and grace. The seemingly “isolated” aura of death is an unfortunate circumstance of a Westernized mentality. We do not look at death. We spend the majority of our lives ignoring it, shutting away the elderly in “homes” that resemble psych wards more than anything else. And yes, sadly, so many souls depart from this world alone, surrounded by strangers and the stench of sterilized walls, instead of with family in the places we have grown, cried, and loved in. When finally forced to confront this, we dress it up and play it down. So few funerals revel in the joy and vibrancy of a life well lived.
If we opened up ourselves and our communities with a clear look at our mortality we would find less fear and shame in death. In our mourning there would be room for genuine celebration. But as long as the dialogue is closed the mind will seek ignorance, mistaking it for bliss.
Let’s not kid ourselves. No one gets out alive. There’s a joke in there somewhere, if you can find the cosmic punchline. Once you do, your laughter will be infinite.
Nothing will bring your life into more focus than asking, “If I died tomorrow, what would I regret? What would I be thankful for?”
Discover what matters and let the mystery inspire you.
“Love the life you live, live the life you love.” — Bob Marley
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