The Fountain of Youth is an ancient myth that’s been written about for thousands of years. It’s been talked about at least as long ago as the fifth century BCE, where references to a fountain capable of restoring one’s youth can be found in the writings of Herodotus, a Greek historian. Although most people probably know the legend from when it was tied to Spanish explorer Ponce de León in the sixteenth century. Whatever the case, the description of the Fountain remains very similar throughout time: a natural spring with supernatural powers that restores the lost youth of anyone who drinks from it or bathes in it. Effectively, it could grant immortality (although interestingly enough, the tribe in Herodotus’ writings weren’t immortal but rather lived for a very long time with an average person living to the age of 120).
So yes, today I want to talk about immortality. And I don’t mean immortality in the sense that you’ll live forever through your work (books, movies, scientific endeavors and so on), but pure, physical immortality.
Now, a common argument against immortality is that it’s “playing God”, or messing with the natural order of things. This is tied back to the idea of original sin in the Bible, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden apple and are cast out of the Garden of Eden. For my part, I have no desire to get into a theological debate about immortality, so I will leave that one up to people who are more informed on the matter than I am.
Even when we remove the theological component, immortality is still a subject that has permeated human consciousness for centuries upon centuries. The fear of death is natural, so it would follow that a desire to conquer death would be natural as well. Many human beings throughout history have mused on what it would be like to live into the future and see what it holds.
But would immortality be all it’s cracked up to be? I don’t think so.
A common theme I’ve noticed throughout fictional stories about immortal characters is that they tend to be jaded and removed from other people. They don’t socialize much with other human beings and they’re very detached from everyday culture. And this is commonly because they know that anyone they get involved with or care about will eventually die, but they won’t. I don’t think this would be something you truly get over, and I can’t even imagine how painful it would be to have to continually watch anyone you grow to care about die while you live on.
This is one of the reasons why I think immortality is, for lack of a better word, overrated. But of course, this assumes that you would be the only immortal person on the planet. If you could extend that immortality to the people you care about or even the entire human race, that could be avoided. However, giving immortality to every single human being presents its own problems. If the entire human race is unable to die, and we keep giving birth to more and more immortal humans (assuming that immortality is somehow hereditary), that hunger problem we’re dealing with these days? It spirals out of control very, very fast. And not only that, but there would be no end to the suffering. People would be starving and malnourished, but there would be no end to it. No one could die from it, so they’d just suffer for eternity, which is a truly horrifying thought.
This brings me to my second argument: immortality is not necessarily immunity from pain.
Few people probably remember this, but back in the early 2000’s there was a short-lived reboot of The Twilight Zone that starred Forrest Whitaker as the narrator. The second episode of the reboot was about a doctor named Jay Ferguson who meets a suicidal man claiming to be Death himself (played by Jason Alexander, who funnily enough was George Costanza from Seinfeld). The man claiming to be Death says that he’s tired of being Death and wants to quit. Ferguson initially doesn’t believe the man, but more and more throughout the episode evidence piles up that he can’t deny, which all culminates in one scene where victims of some horrible accident come to the hospital with severe burns all over their bodies. All the monitors begin to flat-line.
But they keep screaming. They keep screaming in pain because they can’t die.
Initially, Ferguson believes no deaths to be a miracle, and encourages Death to quit. But after seeing those patients, he changes his mind. He rushes to find George Costan-I mean Death standing on the hospital rooftop. Ferguson convinces him to not quit his job and become Death once again.
Then, as is tradition for the Twilight Zone, plot twist.
Throughout the episode, Ferguson has been having these seemingly innocuous headaches. But after he convinces Death, Death touches him and pulls his spirit out of his body, revealing that the headaches were actually an aneurysm. Ferguson complains that it’s not fair, and Death just comments “now you know why I’m always depressed”. The episode ends with the two disappearing into what is presumed to be some kind of afterlife.
Now, this episode isn’t particularly great. It’s actually paced kinda slowly, and takes a while to get to the point from what I remember. But that scene with the burned patients always stuck out in my mind. It was a powerful moment in an episode that otherwise lacked them, which is likely a big part of it. But it’s also because it sends a powerful message about life and death, and how life might not be life if there is no death, no end.
And that’s the thing: immortality does not necessarily mean immunity from pain. Google defines immortality as “living forever; never dying or decaying”. But there’s no mention of immunity from anything besides aging. So, theoretically, you could end up in a horrific car crash of some sort that mangles your body. But, since you’re immortal, you wouldn’t die. So what would happen then? I see two possibilities: either you suffer the pain so long that you eventually become numb to it, or they find a way to fix you. Either way, it’s a terrifying thought.
And further on, what happens if the universe ends and you’re still around? Do you just float through empty blackness forever feeling the sensation of being unable to breathe?
I know my answer to that one: no thanks man. I’m good.
The fear of death is intrinsic to the human race, so it’s natural to want to try to defeat death. But, to quote a line from the most recent Star Trek movie, “fear of death is what keeps us alive”. The fear of death is what pushes us to do new and greater things. Without it, we would become jaded and lethargic. With nothing nipping at our heels, what reason would we have to push ourselves? The fear of death keeps us tethered. It keeps us going, because we know that we only have a certain amount of time to do the things we want before that time runs out. If you’ve ever felt that you do better work when on a deadline, you’re not alone. It’s the same kind of thing with death: we know that there is an end so we strive to do all we can before that end comes.
Well that’s all I have for this week. Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.