Morbidity, Mortality, and More Messages to the Epinions Community... (HYWTD W-O)

Jan 3, 2005 (Updated Feb 2, 2005)

The Bottom Line If you're gonna go, go big, eh?

I don’t want to die.

A few years ago I went through a phase in which I read anything and everything I could get my hands on concerning artificial intelligence. Some proponents of the so-called “strong AI” school of thought, among them the indomitable Ray Kurzweil, are of the opinion that within a few decades, computers will be capable of more calculations per second than the human brain, and so the development of artificial intelligence is almost inevitable, concomitant with the increase in calculating power. This may or may not be the case—I am admittedly rather skeptical as to whether true consciousness will be attainable by a machine (though I am curious)—but one of the most compelling things these theorists postulated was the future capacity to “download” our consciousness onto immortal silicon and copper, to distribute our awareness electronically, and essentially live forever in a bodiless cyberspace. I’m confident that I’ve buggered up some of the particulars there, but the fact remains that the lure of immortality, of existence as pure thought ad infinitum, is immensely powerful.

I don’t want to die.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that I want to exist in perpetuity as pure thought. I like my body. Even on the mornings when my knees hurt because I jumped from too many high places when I was a pseudo-immortal teenager, and my left elbow bangs against the door, again, producing a guttural stream of irritated profanity, I like the fact that I can hop on my bike and soon—cold, rain, wind, and sore elbow notwithstanding—become lost in the steady cadence of the pedals circling and the mere physical fact of the breath whistling in and out of my lungs. I love the sensation of skin on skin, the feel of warm lips on mine, the soft fall of hair through my fingers, the more obvious pleasures of physical intimacy. I love my embodiment, the fact that I have nerves and sensations and feelings and being, so on second thought, I’d rather not have eternal life unless I can have a body to go with it. As of right now, however, it doesn’t look as though I’ll get eternal life, at least on earth, and if the afterlife looks anything like the Judeo-Christian version of it, I’m not sure the version of eternal life that I’d get would be the pleasurable one.

I don’t want to die.

But I know I’m going to. It’s inevitable. I don’t believe that an explosion of machine intelligence will somehow mark the advent of eternal life for humanity, leastways not an eternal life I would want. I know that someday all the glory that is this life will be made forever inaccessible to me, and I know that I will have a mountain of regrets shouldering skyward in my expiring mind. There will be no more transcendent moments of furious passion, whether it be in the bedroom, the concert hall, the great outdoors, the theater, or the cathedral. There will be no more crystalline moments of utter clarity, when everything becomes somehow more real, more alive for a short, unutterably beautiful instant. There will be no more moments of grinding pain, no more exquisitely excruciating, soul-piercing sorrow that, in some inexplicable manner, reminds us that we are able to feel, even as we yearn not to. Somehow, in some way, my body will relinquish its tenuous grasp on life, and I will, in pain or in peace, pass away. It happens to everyone. It will happen to me.

I don’t want to die.

Since God sometimes seems to have a morbid sense of humor (which my conservative upbringing bids me stop short of characterizing as schadenfreude), my demise will probably be an ignominious event of monumental stupidity. I’ll probably be the one that causes people to point at the television in drooling amazement, utterly dumbfounded that someone can be so foolish as to do that! Indeed, I face death in a variety of guises daily.

On my bicycle, every car that skims a little too close to me in passing leaves a reminder of my mortality lingering in my nostrils along with a cloud of exhaust. Every hill I throw myself down at breakneck speeds threatens to flick a pebble of almost inconsequential size into my path to send me tumbling end-over-end on unforgiving asphalt. Rim-shattering potholes appear from beneath the bumpers of cars I follow too closely, promising over-the-handlebars crashes that spill me into the path of oncoming buses.

At work, I climb scaffolds and roofs with casual disdain. Heights hold no fear for me. I have walked steel beams over a hundred feet in the air, scrambled over the edge of a building with nothing between me and the city pavement but a short plank of wood, carried weights equal to that of my own body up ladders that could conservatively be called “rickety”, and catwalked around the rims of gas-belching chimneys. Church steeples entice me. Skyscrapers intoxicate me.

For all of this danger I face daily, though, I’m sure I will die when I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be, eating something I’m not supposed to be eating, drinking something I’m not supposed to be drinking, and doing something I’m not supposed to be doing. I’ll probably be crushed by a falling brick while choking on the olive in the martini I was drinking while drunkenly attempting to urinate on the side wall of a restaurant in the wrong part of town. Death’s ironic like that.

I don’t want to die.

But I will. So the question is how do I want to die? Well, here’s the answer:

At age 59, I still felt good enough to throw myself against the Alps on my bicycle. Sure, I couldn’t smash my way up them the way I could twenty-five years ago, thighs working like pistons while I gritted my teeth and ignored the horrendous lactic acid burn in my muscles, but I could still push it a bit, still compete with some of the younger cyclists. The quick sawing of air in and out of my lungs, the 15% grades that demand nothing less than total, straining, standing effort, the agonized sprint to the summit—all of these things made an afternoon in the Alps worthwhile. And then there was the reward of the descent. God, nothing felt better than furiously pedaling, then tucking down and flying, watching the cyclo-computer edging closer and closer to 100 km/h. Then a rapid brake, a lean into the turn, and another pedal and tuck. Now that was living!

Today had been a little harder than usual, despite the perfect weather. I had felt it over the past year or so, the steady loss of form that had me going down into lower gears on the hard climbs, the increasing difficulty catching my breath after a wicked sprint, and I hated it. How I feared senescence! Alzheimer’s had claimed my grandfather when I was young, and I had never forgotten the shrunken shell of a man that lay staring at nothing in the hospital, waiting mindlessly for the unavoidable failure of his internal organs. That slow, witless death frightened me more than anything else, which is perhaps why even now, as I faced the prospect of old age, I hurled myself into physical pursuits with as much vigor as I could muster. I did not want to die enfeebled.

Now, though, I had crested the mountain, and was on my way down. Now, life was beautiful. The first couple of switchbacks went beautifully. I tucked low and leaned in, just to the point where the tires
almost slid, then pedaled away into the next straightaway. Coming up on the third turn, though, the most dangerous, a perverse desire came over me. The drop at the road's outer edge was sheer, a precipitous chasm cut deep into the side of the mountain, and for some reason I decided to take the outside of the turn, to cut it as close as possible. As I braked, I guided my bike toward the side of the road, sitting back slightly in the saddle as I worked the levers. I never saw what I hit.

Suddenly, my front wheel bucked wildly. I felt the bike begin to rise out of the turn as it skidded toward the dropoff. Then both wheels dug into the soft earth at the side of the road, and, with a convulsive movement, the bicycle flipped toward the empty air beyond the pavement. My feet snapped out of the pedals, and I found myself airborne, my bike turning spastic circles in the sky behind me. Time stood still. My mind was blank, a blinding white wash of nothingness. My arms flailed uselessly. Then thought returned, and for one brief, beautiful instant, I was free, flying through a crystal-clear alpine afternoon. Every needle on every pine tree, every lichen-washed rock, every bird wheeling languidly against the azure sky burned itself indelibly into my vision. At that moment, I was one with the entire world. At that moment, my entire world ended.

© SL, 2005

... This has been an entry in updateghost's How Would You Like to Die Write-Off. It was just quirky enough to appeal to me this evening. If you're interested in the details, or the manner in which other folk want to expire, check out the W-O announcement here...

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