The Problem with Immortality

Have you ever heard of R.L. Stine? I grew up with R.L. Stine, and his whole series of kiddie-horror books. RL Stine was Russell Lee’s TRUE SINGAPORE GHOST STORIES  before I dared to take the scare of  TRUE SINGAPORE GHOST STORIES.

I used to be puzzled by the characters in Stine’s Goosebumps. Every once in awhile there’s a vampire story, and the character would fight tooth and nail not to be a vampire. Powers of transformation, invisibility, the ability to stay up all night. And most of all – immortality.

What could be better than being able to live forever?

Neil Gaiman’s Bernie Capax was an immortal that lived about ten thousand years. He remembered the dense musk of the mammoths in the cold freezing mornings. And when it was all over Death told him: you get what everyone gets, she said, you get a lifetime. He was an immortal until he was not.

Ursula LeGuin’s Changing Planes is a series of short stories about alternate universes. The Island of the Immortals is a story that haunts me to this day. Her immortals live forever, all right. But because human beings are organic, carbon lifeforms, her immortals turn into lumps of charcoal over time. Then coal. Then diamonds. The Island had an unusually high amount of diamonds. That was the first time it struck me how chilling it could be to live forever.

This must perhaps be the second time.

What is the problem with immortality? Well I suppose it depends on how you want to define immortality. I don’t have a slick, physical coat of invulnerability around me. I fall sick still, on occasion. Bernie Capax was immortal until he died. He got what everyone did, which was a lifetime. Even Dream of the Endless had to give in to The Kindly Ones in the end.

The problem with immortality is that you cannot die.

And so no matter how much it hurts, you have to carry on. Just when you most want to die, you cannot. It is not a choice open to you. It is not a choice your rational mind can entertain, and your rational mind is all that is left to you, in a world where things can pivot and collapse with the catastrophic abruptness of earthquakes, accidents, and summary executions. You are too afraid to suffer. You are no Gandhi, who could go on a hunger strike until he blackmailed the world into doing what he wanted. You are closer to Chee Soon Juan, who took glucose while on his hunger strike. Suffering, but too afraid to go beyond the edge. The knife at your wrist awakes an alien, primal horror in you that makes you back away. You are immortal because you cannot override your lizard brain. Your lizard brain is immortal, even though you want to die.

You spend entire weeks and  months getting to know the person. Bit by bit your walls come down. You learn to trust. Like Singapore you spent a long time telling your (internal) population that merger is going to be the greatest thing that ever happened to you. And slowly, you begin to inhabit the reality where the perks are obvious, that the only future you can have is with Malaysia. And then just two short years later you must un-make all that. All of the beliefs, all of the structures you carefully built out of those little moments – out of the sunlight shining on her smiling face; out of the smell of her on a musky muggy night; out of the bad jokes she tells you to try to make you smile; out of the Stitch Telegram sticker she uses to greet you every morning; out of every story she told you wistfully about her childhood – all of these matchstick structures now, you must sweep away. You must sweep them away because a decision has been made. You think today Lee Kuan Yew was a crocodile crying salty tears on television. I wonder if Malaysia had been his baby. More than raw ambition, the PAP had always campaigned to be in Malaya. And in 1965 they got booted out.

When you are a nation you cannot die. When you are a people thrown together you cannot die. (Not immediately, anyway. Like the Palestinians, you persist.) When you are a ‘coward’ you cannot die. Simply, some people (out of choice or circumstance) do not die.

But just because the swordsteel cannot melt in the hungry, cruel heat of the furnace, just because it endures, doesn’t mean that it is not changed and hurt by the eating fire. Just because the egg cracks for new life doesn’t mean the shell survived.  Just because the coffee releases its flavour in great heat doesnt mean it did not endure excruciating agony.

The problem with immortality is that you cannot die. You only persist, and endure, and suffer on, through every one of life’s compounded sorrows.

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning



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