The Quest for Immortality: Our Bias Against Death

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October 29, 2017

Yesterday we were in Pennsylvania for our son’s College Parents Weekend.  My husband and son decided to see his college football game against Dickinson College.  I have never been interested in spectator sports and decided to stay in the Science building to read the news from my cell phone.  Besides, we spectators were not allowed to bring any backpack or purse or food from the outside which made it even more inconvenient for a woman to go see the game.  Some women can go around without their purse, but for most of us, it’s our home away from home.  I still don’t know how men can function outside their home with just a few pockets on their pants.  Where do they keep their sunglasses, wallet, keys, hand sanitizer, tissue papers just in case the public toilets don’t have anymore toilet papers?  Maybe I have travelled to the third world countries too often, but maybe I am more neurotic than a typical man. 

While reading the current news about our nation, which often make me anxious, I got a phone call from my husband David:

“My Dad is about to die! We are walking back from the stadium, where are you?”

I froze.  My heart started racing.  I felt such heaviness on my chest, as if my world was about to take a drastically dark turn.  What happened to my father in law Sam? Was he in the ER? How’s my mother in law coping with this sudden event? Should I call my family? Would my father fear for his own mortality? Should I text my office manager to let her know I need to cancel this whole week because I want to be with my husband’s family?

As I rushed out of the building, I saw my husband and son talking to each other in such calm manner.  My husband waved at me and smiled.  How could he smile and stay so calm? His eyes were not red at all.  Maybe he was still in shock.

It turned out that my husband did not say “My Dad is about to die.” He told me “My BATTERY is about to die.” Maybe the dying battery muffled his voice and turned the “Bat” sound into “Dad.”

I burst out laughing but I could tell it was a nervous laugh.  How silly of me, I thought, to mis-hear my husband.  More seriously, however, I recognized how this fear of losing someone I admire and love, which has been following me since I was very young, was never far from the surface.  What did I expect, that 90 year-old Sam and my 94 year old father would live forever? At my age and in my medical profession, I should face the concept of death with ease.   

I went into obstetrics to see regularly the beginning of life and rarely death.  I have watched enough deaths as a medical student and a resident rotating through Gynecology Oncology.  When I was a third year medical student rotating through the emergency department, I was ordered by my resident to practice CPR technique on an elderly patient who just died.  In his stoic way, he also taught me how to declare a patient “dead.”  I reluctantly did so and was frighten being left alone after the resident left the room.  She was just alive a few minutes ago; where did she go now?  I asked myself.  Where did she come from? How did she live her life? Was she happy? Did she have more sorrow than joy? How would people remember her? My head was full of questions about her as I put my stethoscope on her corpse trying to listen to the absence of her heart beats.  I knew at that moment I could never be an ER doctor.  I rather made more announcements of births than deaths.

I have this suspicion that most people, regardless of their religions, have a fear of death.  It’s easy to say how we live “on borrowed time,” and yet, when the borrowed time seems to be up, most of us would be fighting hard to borrow more time.  We wish we could go in debt forever for this time on earth.  We wish we could buy another week, month, year, decade, so we won’t miss other “hallmark” of life, a birth of a grandchild, a high school graduation of a daughter, a wedding of a son. Or, could it be that most of us have an intense fear of the unknown?

More than eighteen years ago, I took my mother to a hospital in Washington D.C. to visit her friend who was dying of ovarian cancer.  My mother’s friend was a devoted Catholic who always told my mother how everybody had to die, and how she would be with God in the afterworld where there would be no more suffering.  I thought it was remarkable that this woman had found such peace in the face of suffering.  The cancer had reduced her to a pale and bedridden woman whose once had such vibrant life.  With her intestinal obstruction, she could no longer eat, and had to rely on intravenous fluid around the clock.  She was about to die.

While standing by her bed, my mother gently touched her hand.

“How are you?” She asked.

“I am so afraid…I don’t want to die!” My mother’s friend started sobbing.

The room was so quiet I thought I could hear the air flowing between me and her bed.  Why did  it have to be such a beautiful day while this woman could no longer get out of her hospital bed?  Like a coward, I receded behind my mother.

“You will be alright.” Mother said softly and awkwardly “You will be with God.”

“ I don’t want to be with God.  I want to be here.  I want to live.” Her friend sobbed loudly.

My mother’s friend died a week later, in the middle of a cold winter, when her daughter was 28 week pregnant.  She never lived to see her first grandchild.  Was there “justice” in dying a few weeks before seeing her first grandchild? Is there justice in any death?  Is it all predetermined as one’s fate, or a random process as many people believe?

This fear of death and the bias to disbelieve in death, according to the philosopher Steve Caves, is the basis of four forms of “immortality,” or the quest for it present in all civilizations since the beginning of time:

  1. Elixir: a quest for immortality by seeking an absolute cure for all diseases or “a fountain of youth.”  Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan have pledged billion of dollars into the mission to end all diseases by the end of the century. 
  2. Resurrection:  a religious belief that the dead can rise and be among the living again.  A modern, scientific-based form of resurrection, cited by Caves, is the process of cryopreservation.  Many people even preserve their pets as if they will, one day live forever.
  3. Soul: religious people believe there is an “essence” inside of our physical form that will live forever after we died.  Many skeptics, however, believe this essence is within our brain and ceases to exist when the brain itself dies.
  4. Legacy:  Many people hope by leaving behind a “legacy,” they will exist forever.  It’s another form of symbolic immortality.

For whatever reason we are consumed by a fear of death, we waste valuable time searching for the antidote.  As the philosopher Caves eloquently advised, think of our life as a book between a cover of life and death in which we play a character.  In a book, characters live their lives without knowing what will happen or worrying about the future.  They just play out their roles before the end of the book arrives. To fear death, which we cannot avoid,  will take away many meaningful moments we have to live our exciting life.  To acknowledge the finite time we have, however, helps us live with intention and intensity, which is liberating.