My wife Marguerite retired a few weeks ago. She was looking forward to it, but just as it happened we had a succession of funerals to attend. It was as though we were given a reminder: with retirement, death approaches.
My own retirement was some time ago, in 2002. I was younger, but in poor health. In my mind I was crossing things off the list of things I hoped to do in the future, since I would never be well enough.
How long should we live?
Looking forward to the day when medical technology enables us to live to 150 is a young person’s dream. As we get older the thought horrifies us. It is not just because our bodies become more infirm. This is certainly part of the picture: a 70-year-old, however fit and healthy, still cannot physically do all the things that could be taken for granted at 20.
However, even if medical technology could keep us for 100 years in the physical state we had at 20, our minds would be older. Our accumulated memories would still retain all that stuff from way back when. Those formative influences of our childhood would still be the influences of our childhood era.
What if we could do it again?
After I retired it took me years to make the mental adjustments to being a retired person. Gradually I became able to think of my time in paid employment as a past era, albeit the bulk of my life. Knowing what I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, if I could go back and do it all again, would I do it differently? Oh yes, certainly; but if I really was back in the early 1970s I would also be without that benefit of hindsight.
So I look back on some of the appalling mess-ups I made, and wish I could go back, find the people whose lives I spoiled, and apologise. I cannot. Similarly, I look back fondly at some of the good times, wish I could do them again, and then remind myself that even if I could, doing it a second time would not mean as much.
If they could make my body the body of a 20-year-old, it would not mean much unless they could also make my mind the mind of a 20-year-old. Of course I’d like to keep the useful knowledge and wisdom I have accumulated since then, but without the bad memories. Would that be possible? No: the bad memories are ingredients in the wisdom.
Life after death?
It isn’t possible, of course. The nearest possibility is reincarnation: we start again, not as 20-year-olds but as babies. To use a computer analogy, our minds would be rebooted without the bugs, but all the good software would need reinstalling.
As I crossed things off the list of things I hoped to do in the future, I was comforted by the thought that maybe our children would do them. If they wanted to. But then, what if they didn’t want to, and somebody else’s children did? Would that matter?
It seems that the issue at stake was my self-centredness. Why is it important that I should do these things, rather than somebody else? Why would I want a newborn baby to be a reincarnation of me rather than just being a new life?
Letting go of self-centredness
It is this self-centredness that elaborates theories of life after death. We don’t want to cease to exist. Yet death comes to us all, and the evidence of an afterlife is tenuous.
The overriding task, it seems, is to let go of our self-centredness. It is both spiritual and moral. As a moral task it impinges on all our other moral tasks: it is our self-centredness that stops us working for the common good.
Our society offers two ways to hang onto our self-centredness in the face of death. One is to commit ourselves to theories about life after death. Most of the theories come from the major faith traditions. The fact that they enable us to think of extending our self-centredness into eternity is part of the downside. Another is that they get turned into techniques of manipulation, urging people to join a particular tradition because of the afterlife benefits. By contrast the snippets of evidence for an afterlife, as for example researched by the Alister Hardy Society, are much healthier. They suggest that there is some kind of continuing life but do not favour one tradition over another.
The second way to reject the task is to drive death away. This is the characteristic approach of modern secular society. It knows, of course, that we shall all die, but it pushes this knowledge as far as it can into the background. Much medical research is devoted to postponing death as long as possible. Because so much research is valuable we are reluctant to criticise it; but one element is that the values of the young, who do not want to think realistically about death, get imposed on the old who are ready for it.
We need to adopt an attitude of trust. The discourses of modern science and technology can easily fool us into imagining that the scientific community understands how the universe works and how our bodies function. The reality is that although they are learning more and more, it is but a tiny part of the whole. The overwhelming majority of the forces and processes we need to survive are unknown to us. We have to trust them, and we all do. Including issues of death and the afterlife in this trust would be an obvious thing to do, if secularists had not imposed a taboo on everything they classify as ‘religion’.
So here, for you, is a picture of a rotten apple. Once it was ripe and edible. Eaten, it would have gone through someone’s digestive system and come out as manure. In its present state it is degenerating into manure anyway. In either case the manure will be nutritious food for new plants. The apple itself will have no say in how it gets used.
The same is true of our bodies. Whether we get buried or cremated we shall provide nutrients to other living beings. Which living beings, we cannot control or even foresee. I would like to think that our achievements and ideas will do the same.
At the approach of death, we have to let go. The pleasures and excitements of life can be just as well experienced by someone else. For me, retirement drew attention to this need, and the deaths of good friends are a reminder. Letting go of our self-centredness is not easy, but it has to be done.
If it were not for the exaggerated claims for scientific knowledge and control that are so common these days I think this would be more obvious.