WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY THAT WE ARE MORTAL?
When we are very young we have limited experience of death, and for most children it hits home when a grandparent dies and they sudden realize they are mortal. For household pets like cats or dogs that recognition of death may never occur and in all likelihood they live their lives without a sense of being mortal. If small animals had a sense of mortality it would be very depressing. Imagine being a mouse and knowing that your mean life expectancy is two years. Of course, length of life is relative. We don’t feel like mice because Sequoia trees live, on average, two or three thousand years. Even a 250-year-old Galapagos tortoise does not shake our sense of fulfillment in a life expectancy of 80 to 90 years. Many insects live only a matter of days or weeks and it takes a stretch of our imaginations to imagine being fulfilled in such a short life cycle. As humans we can cope with our death by assuming (as most of humanity does) that there is a life after death either in the form of a resurrected body and mind or a disembodied mind existing out there (again, for most of humanity, in some sort of heaven or hell). There is an alternative way of looking at mortality and that is stoicism. That is a philosophy I learned about reading the Enchiridion aloud to a blind high school teacher who became, without my knowing it, a private tutor. I read classical literature and “great books” to him, an hour before classes began, for several years. The Enchiridion was written by Epictetus, a handicapped Roman slave, born with a deformed leg. He taught that our life could be shaped by those events we had little or no control over (our heredity, our status at birth, wars and other calamities, or even good fortune) and those that we did have control over (our moods, how we behave toward others, and the ideals we set for ourselves). I liked that attitude and it has served me well over some 60 years of life after learning it.
Biologically, death is essential for life to evolve or even continue. If we did not die the world would be unable to provide food, room, or even oxygen for us to exist unless we gave up our desire to reproduce. Death trims the population to a sustainable size. It also fosters variations to come into being that might otherwise be repressed. Younger generations of humans do things differently than their ancestors. Their values change, their knowledge changes, their priorities differ. Older people are stuck with their habits and traditions. They often stand in the way of a youthful generation that rejects the values of the old. This is why conservative thinking tends to go with older age. Ironically the radicalism of a youthful generation is often perceived as the conservative past for the next generation. But death does not visit the old alone. It also sifts through our genetic compositions and those with inefficient immune systems or those with genetic disorders or conditions that limit their survival may fall short of our species’ life expectancy. Biologically this may make sense, but emotionally it is difficult to accept the mortality of those we love, revere, or consider models for our lives. In a way it is good that most plants and animals are unaware of death. Nature plays out its vicissitudes, as lawyers liked to note in the wills they prepared for us, and harvests through death the failures who leave fewer offspring behind. Fortunately, for humanity, we have learned to extend our life expectancy and patch up our failing organ systems, but sooner or later death wins. The machinery of life sooner or later wears out. My stoicism, so far, keeps my ideals alive.