6. Death and immortality
Whatever else death may or may not be, it is certainly the end of the physical brain and body that gave birth to our self. You may hold to a belief that something survives — a soul that continues to a new life quite different from this one, or some energy/impulse that manages to regenerate another body and brain in this same world, to cite two popular possibilities. But beyond even the extremely rare and sketchy claims that some memories from a past life can surface in a new one, death is certainly a catastrophe for the self as we know it.
What is the normal reaction of any living thing to an impending crisis? Avoidance. It takes whatever measures it can to avoid disaster, and death in particular.
In the face of a physical threat, our minds are quite capable of making us take protective measures, whether defensive or offensive, or flee. We will do whatever we think is necessary to ensure our survival. In fact, so strong and primal is this urge that we reserve our highest praise for those who counter this instinct and embrace death for the sake of saving others. Greater love hath no man, or woman, in the eyes of just about anyone, and this is something we will want to revisit. But even those saved through heroic sacrifice are saved only for a time.
The threat death poses to the self is absolute, and the mind does not give up without a fight. In this fight, however, defense is our only option, and the relative permanence of the physical world, of matter, is alluring, even if we know rationally that “all things must pass.” For we also know that throughout history, sufficient resources have increased our odds of survival, or surviving longer. So is it that much of a leap to imagine that even more resources would increase those odds further … and maybe even beat them?
Surely no one rationally believes he or she can actually build a wall to keep death out, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce at least some of the tension by choosing not to police the border between fact and fantasy too strictly. I venture that few if any of us spend our life truly secure in the constant knowledge that we could die at any moment, or have never been surprised to hear that someone died sooner rather than later. You might dismiss the idea of immortality as silliness, but can eternity not be approximated by an open-ended sequence of just one more day after another?
One day the gently psychotic illusion that death exists only abstractly in the future will crumble, but until then I think we are quite happy to do whatever we can to let the illusion be, or even keep it going. And what would an entity born of identification and accumulation do other than what it does best? Of course we can accumulate physical possessions and resources such as medical care, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Our true protection is much less tangible, and much more solid for it.
The first step in this self-defense is actually a half-step, which keeps one foot firmly in place. Biologically, we continue the great movement of life through procreation. Even the simplest forms of what we term life — collectively the inhabitants of the vegetable and animal kingdoms — do it. And it is easy to understand how attached we humans become to the particularly helpless new lives we start on their way in the world, at times even sacrificing our own well-being for them. Since they do share at least some of our physical identity, roughly half of it in terms of DNA, it is hard to deny that at least a part of us lives on in them.
This pseudo-physical connection offers a real and tangible consolation, a biological if not physical continuation of our being. But the solution is obviously a risky one. It happens that children do not survive their parents, or that adults produce no children, in which case the biological line can come to an end. And if not now, then maybe in the future. So the nuclear family is no sure bet. But do not let the ferocity with which we defend it pass unnoticed; neither the way that some cultures or religions look upon childlessness or “barrenness” as a curse, or the way overtly patriarchal societies assign much the same sense of tragedy to a man who has no son.
We guard our family, the most concrete extension of our individual self, with our life and lavish as much attention and resources on it as we can. (On the other hand, spending a great sum on oneself is much less socially acceptable than spending an equally inordinate amount on one’s family. One might be accused of spoiling one’s children, but the difference is essentially that between a “greedy bastard” and a “family man.” For now, this is just an observation.)
Moving into the realm of disordered thought, the belief that only a boy can carry on the bloodline — or the extended self in our discussion — plays a role in selective abortion of female fetuses and female infanticide. Economics and some form of dowry system often play a significant role in such tragic behavior, but it also occurs when these are clearly not the prime considerations, such as when governments restrict the number of births. Perhaps nothing so clearly underscores both the non-biological component and ruthless self-interest that can be part of identification with a family.
Such misguided desperation aside, the nuclear family has the already mentioned drawbacks as a way to cheat death. Is the extended family any different? A better bet for sure, but not the sure bet we want. Nonetheless, here we pick up our other foot and begin the step into the wholly abstract, since continuation through relatives other than our own children would not proceed from us in any direct biological way, even if there might be a significant genetic overlap. We simply need to find a way to bypass the physical world, since it offers no escape from mortality.
The only practical recourse is to extend not the physical aspect of our self but the mental. This might seem a bizarre leap, until we recall that we base our self on memories in the first place. The world of thought is its true home, and in this world the mind reigns supreme. The only limits are those we insist on.
The extended family is not the full leap into this virtual world, both because it still has some biological links and because of the real limitations that come with this. But these diminish and begin to recede out of sight with the next expansion, to the level of the tribe or, in more modern times but less effectively, the community. Actually the true modern analogue or development of the tribe as an entity based on geography and/or culture is the nation, essentially a supertribe born of assimilation, either through conquest or mutual interest. Let’s move right to it, since the dynamics of affiliation, internalized through identification, are basically the same.
It is interesting to note in passing, however, that mob behavior fits easily within the dynamics of self we are describing. A mob is just a temporary tribe or extended family. Each member identifies with the others, crafting a more powerful and seemingly less vulnerable super-self.
A first observation as we consider identification with nations or countries is that people generally belong to these through birth or residence, not through will alone. As such, a connection to physical reality remains. In fact, this connection ranges in strength. Many nations comprise people or peoples (tribes) who share physical traits as well as cultural norms and geographical proximity. Other countries, “melting pots,” have diverse populations. Either way, the national identity is not essentially based on biology. It is for all intents and purposes abstract.
Do people identify strongly with their nation/country? Wars are all the proof anyone could require. But let’s see what else we can find of interest here.
In the human world, nations can be extremely durable. Some go back hundreds, even thousands, of years in one form or another. Especially in the modern world, borders, governments and armies give countries a very real feel, yet they can continue even without these. Should a nation be subjugated, history shows it will remain a vital impulse that could emerge to live another day. Some have been swallowed by more powerful nations only to reappear decades or even a few hundred years later. This latter fact shows them to be, if anything, persistent and powerful ideas. Great sacrifices are made to protect independence or regain it if lost. As with the family or tribe, people are willing to give up their individual life to ensure the continuity of their nation. The benefit to be gained is more abstract, but more seductive for it.
Nations or countries make such attractive objects for identification precisely because of their durability. Certainly it is harder to destroy a nation than a family or community, and more so today than ever before. Even amid two “world wars” and numerous other conflicts in the 20th century, nations did not simply vanish. Tibet, even if it is officially part of China, remains very distinct and likely will remain so under the international gaze, regardless of its political status. Palestine is in the process of re-emerging as a state. And the emergence of Eritrea, Timor Leste and the many countries that used to part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia shows the trend is toward establishment or re-establishment of nations, not subjugation. It is also now an accepted principle of international law that genocide or indiscriminate mass killing is not acceptable. Some of those responsible are even tried and held accountable, although powerful countries can still act with impunity.
Whether or not the fear of invasion or genocide is actually diminishing, the movements that have brought independence to scores of countries around the world since the end of World War II bear out the point that relatively large numbers of people are willing to die for the sake of their nation even in the absence of a credible physical threat. This is not to say that the people in these countries were treated justly by colonial rulers, but the poorer sections of society in many of these countries are not treated much better today by their own governments, and some arguably are worse off. For the most part they want jobs and better livelihoods, and probably a better government, but are more willing to suffer without these at the hands of their “own” rulers, with at least their national identity secured.
Nationalism, then, is not based in economics or immediate physical survival. These play their part from time to time, but the phenomenon is essentially abstract. For all its seeming solidity, a nation is an idea at heart, and the mind can identify with such a concept, establishing an inseparable link just as it does with the memories and experiences our individual identity is built on, or with family members. No longer trapped in a one-to-one relationship to a mortal body, the expanded self attains a pseudo-permanence otherwise denied it. Death can be held off indefinitely, for centuries, if not absolutely.
This might be enough for some, who firmly believe that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” but it is still settling for a compromise. Many or most will opt for 100% assurance of eternal life. Clearly, though, no true permanence is to be found in anything related to the world of matter. The reality of death and decay lurks close at hand, however hard one might try to ignore it, but the mind is nothing if not inventive. As already mentioned, at least two possibilities have stood the test of time: rebirth in the material world through reincarnation, and passage into another dimension, with heaven the generally preferred destination.
One or the other of these alternatives has soothed countless anxious minds staring helplessly at the prospect of death as the final, immutable end of existence. The catch, of course, is that one doesn’t live to see the promise fulfilled. In one way or another, a “leap of faith” is required, and if ever there was a case of “the more the merrier,” this is it. Any anxiety I feel about pinning all my hopes for escaping death on an unproven promise would obviously be lessened if you believed the same thing. We could reassure one another. If enough people agree that something is true, it seems that much more real. A well-known children’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, is built around one such naked premise.
Finally we have reached the promised land of pure abstraction. Since we literally are what we think, firm belief in anything, including a concept such as immortality, is all we need to make that thing part of us. The principle at work here we all know in countless ways. How many times, facing a daunting task, have you heard the advice, or even advised yourself, to “put your mind to it”? It is the fevered mantra of pop psychology and the holy grail of business seminars — you can do it if you believe you can. Of course the business gurus stress the aspect of will, that besides belief in a possibility you must also strongly desire the outcome. Amazingly, what makes this all the more effective when it comes to the enterprise of eternal life is the purely intangible dimension of the prize. You might not live to see the promise fulfilled, but you certainly will not live to see it broken. No one can prove you wrong! There is no lack of motivation, so all you have to do is believe hard and long enough to banish doubt. Eternal life becomes part of who you are, along with a soul if necessary for the plan to appear that much more reasonable.
Hence, for the best and worst of reasons, people have found no end of ways to give core religious beliefs as much muscle as possible. Beyond brute force and the glorification of sanitized exemplars of the faith, are the rules and rituals that reinforce the faith experience. Rules, in addition to the threat of punishment for breaking them, involve a convoluted sense of justice. One’s sacrifice and obedience surely entitle one to the prize, or it just wouldn’t be fair … would it? And given that we are talking about nothing less than immortality, the greatest of all prizes, greater sacrifice and stricter rules reinforce this “justice” all the more. They make the deal seem not too easy, which might encourage doubt, while also upping the investment, which surely cannot be for naught … can it?
Still, the process can be helped along. Rituals provide a way of sustaining emotional intensity over the lifelong time span that religion must fill. They can be either peak, one-time experiences, such as initiation or transition rites – circumcision, marriage and ordination all being examples of this – or periodic rites that reaffirm belief and belonging, such as daily or weekly prayers, or annual festivals. By their short-term nature, lasting minutes, hours or at most a few days, these events allow sustained emotional intensity, but since they are all linked, the effect is both cumulative and reinforced through repetition — the very same methods through which identity is built. (Nationalism also has it ritual reinforcements in national anthems, flag ceremonies and the like, but these pale when compared to the more elaborate religious systems.)
Certainly religion has more to it, and we will come back to this, but to the extent that it is a club in which membership has its privileges, a system of rules and rewards, not a way to the deepest wisdom we can aspire to but the only way, it is just the most organized human attempt to cheat or escape death.
Before moving on, let’s recap the basic dynamic we have been looking at. Consciousness emerges in a human brain, but we are not saying anything here about how, which will be our next task. Beginning with observation, trial and error, and rudimentary analysis, the mind comes to differentiate between “inner” and “outer” realities. The inner reality comprises bodily sensations and thoughts processed by the brain, and memories stored in it. The outer reality comprises everything else. The mind, the conscious brain, then makes the questionable though understandable leap of linking the consciousness working through it with this inner reality. In this way the mind creates the self as its psycho-physical extension, its self-consciousness. In fact the self begins precisely as a collection of memories, since we can manipulate experiences and thoughts only after the fact.
This self obviously correlates in real and useful ways to the mind-body system that produces it. Both are unique and exist in a one-to-one relationship. (Multiple personality disorder and perhaps other psychological abnormalities might seem to challenge this, but we are talking about ordinary processes, not all the possible variations. And the fact that the mind can create more than one identity actually supports the basic contention.) It is tempting to think of the body as truly the physical extension of the mind, except that body precedes mind.
The sensations that the mind experiences obviously are limited to the associated body, so the physical aspect of self is a closed loop. On the other hand, the mental aspect of self is unlimited. It begins through the conscious mind identifying with the thoughts and memories in a particular brain. But identifying with any other object or abstraction merely continues this process. It can be done over and over again, at ever more expansive levels, as the mind grows in its mental abilities. Ordinary reality tends to keep things from going “too far,” but the mind is more than capable of overpowering reason if the stakes are high enough. And the more comfortable the mind gets with its self, its perceived individual existence, the less willing it is to accept that this existence must end. The desire to escape death is all the motivation the mind requires to identify with the most enduring abstraction it can grab hold of or invent.
There is one more connection I’d like to draw here. If we make someone else part of our self through identification, as with family and close friends, then the death of that person would indeed be traumatic. Beyond the physical passing, part of our self literally would die at the same time. For someone particularly close, the loss could be immense. The image that comes to mind is of a tree being pulled out of the ground. I think the intensity of grief we feel at the death of a loved one fits in much better with the shocking sudden reduction of an abstract aggregate self than with the idea that self (theirs or ours) has some real permanence that outlives death. Needless to say, a similar reality of loss applies to things or even ideas we identify with strongly as well as people.