Millions long for immortality, but don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

– Susan Ertz


I’ve long been convinced that the only thing worse than dying is not dying. The latter — some state of being alive and aware — presumably goes on forever, and ever, amen.

Forever! IMHO, the greatest thing about life is that it’s bounded: that’s what gives life its edge, its urgency. Franz Kafka said it best: The meaning of life is that it stops. We have a limited time here (about thirty thousand days on average). If you’re immortal, what do you do with all that time??? (See above.)

“Isle of the Dead” (Die Toteninsel) by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901). (Public domain.) Sergei Rachmaninov composed his gorgeous symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” after seeing a black-and-white print of the painting. (Had he seen the color original, he said he probably wouldn’t have written the music!)

In a sense, we’re already immortal: Billions of years old, that is, which should count for something. Biochemist George Wald explained it as a dichotomy: We already have immortality, but we have it in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body…every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organism to appear on this planet; and that is about three billion years. Practically immortal.

More down to Earth, I have to remind myself, pretty much on a daily basis, not to squander my time here. If I did believe in immortality and all that, I might have to atone for all that squandering. As the Talmud says, We will be called to account on Judgment Day for every permissible thing we might have enjoyed but did not, while economist John Maynard Keynes expressed this even more succinctly with his dying words: I wish I’d drunk more champagne.

Still, there’s an odd poignancy about the idea of death. Not that I can imagine myself dead, of course — I wouldn’t be able to imagine anything at that point. I resonate with the English author John Fowles, who wrote, It isn’t that I suddenly believe in the possibility of an after-life; just some strange delicate sense of the wistful sadness of birdsong; of being dead so long, and not hearing it.

Birdsong. Tears. Ocean waves. My beloved’s touch. Fog. Orion. Pad thai. Janis. Lavender. Raccoons. O God, I love so many things, it will take years to take them away one by one. (Leonard Cohen)

When I do sense death approaching, I like to think it will be with gratitude, as expressed long ago by the Greek philosopher Epictetus (even if I don’t have the slightest idea whom he’s addressing!): You wish that I leave this magnificent spectacle: I leave it. And I thank You a thousand times over that You have deigned to admit me there where I can see Your works manifested…

Gratitude. Urgency. Playfulness. Kindness. That should do it.