Monday, March 30, 2015

How To Be Immortal, Kind Of

It's often said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, and that's really not much of an exaggeration. At some point, perhaps sooner than we realize, the physical death of a human being might be less of a certainty than it has been throughout history. As medical advances continue and technology starts to become integrated with the flesh and blood aspects of life, it could be that in a few more generations, people could live for hundreds of years or more.

But today at least, we humans are still limited to our relatively short lifespans. I'm in my mid-40s. Statistically, I'm more than halfway done with my life. I know this. I'm not a person who obsesses on the fact that my life will indeed end and I won't be here anymore after that. I'm sure that eventually, I'll likely be more concerned with this concept, but for now I'm at peace with the thought that life will go on without my involvement. But believe it or not, even today there are a couple of ways to be, in some aspects, immortal. And all of those ways involve creativity and exchange of knowledge.

1. Procreate
Yeah, it's kind of an old-fashioned way to do it (and not very difficult, at least from a male perspective). But the act of continuing the species by passing along your genetic information via the creation of a new human is one way to achieve a measure of immortality. It's just not a very good one. Here's what I mean: your children are not you, of course. You get to extend some of your genetics to a new generation of people, sure, but you're also passing along traits of your many ancestors that have very little to do with you, personally (as well as those of the person with whom you created the child). In essence, you are really not your genes. You get them, you use them, and if you have a biological child, you pass them along. You don't get to choose which ones you get, nor the ones you give to your kids (not yet, anyway). But there is perhaps some solace in knowing that my stupid fuzzy hair and blue/green eyes (that weren't really mine to begin with, per above) might be in the traits of some human that lives hundreds or thousands of years from now.

Me and my son. He has some of my traits, some of his mother's, and some that might come from genes that have been dormant for multiple generations spanning hundreds of years. His very being helps my life be of importance as time progresses. He still has to clean his room and do his biology homework, regardless.

There are also possibilities that other aspects of your "youness" will pass down to your progeny, at least for a certain period of time. The obvious aspect of this is your culture... the language you speak, your personal traditions, the music/art/literature to which you appreciate and that you expose to your children. There are also other areas that are just beginning to be explored and understood, like the question of whether human parents actually pass along memories to their offspring via DNA. In any case, having children inarguably increases the chance that you will be remembered and that the things you do in life will have effects beyond the point that you're no longer part of the game.

However, the fact is that with or without children, you'll eventually be forgotten. You might know the name of your great, great grandfather, but what do you know about him beyond that? What kind of food did he like the most? Was he funny? Serious? What did he do for a living? Did he have any significant relationships beyond the one with your great, great grandmother? Did he like music? Dancing? Move back a few more generations, and it's almost certain that even the name of that person is lost in history. They are gone. Forever.

2. Create
Here's the big one. When you create almost anything at all, that thing has the possibility of outliving you, and even influencing people who won't be born until years after you're gone. My son was born in 1999, and yet there are a number of songs written by John Lennon that my kid really enjoys. John died 19 years before my son became a human, and yet the music of The Beatles is still relevant to my son's life, and will likely be listened to and studied for many generations to come. As a student of music, I studied the works of dozens of composers who had been gone hundreds of years before I ever heard them. Just because Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and the others aren't alive anymore doesn't mean their creative efforts don't continue to inspire and entertain me. They live on in their own way, and will for as long as people still appreciate music.

Here I am working on a song last weekend for my band They Stole My Crayon. If things go really well, people will still listen to this song after I'm long gone.

So, music and other art forms that are deemed significant tend to outlive their creators. Great novels, well-known sculptures and paintings, movies... these things can have an effect beyond that of your corporeal self. But there's more. People who make big contributions to other people's lives have a lasting impact as well. The inventor of the vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk. Technological leaders like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. And even those whose names you don't know, lost to obscurity or the ravages of time, impact your life daily, and live on in that regard. Who invented the wheel? Someone did. He or she made something that will continue to be used for eternity, or damn near. Thanks, wheel person. We owe you a lot.

Ironically, this very blog post might be one thing that helps the memory of me continue after I'm dead. Someone may read this in a hundred years. Hello, person in 2115. Hope you're having a good time in the future. And while it's statistically unlikely, the music I've created and continue to make has a much better chance of impacting someone's life in the future than almost anything else I've done. Funny, how much emphasis and time and importance we put on the business reports, spreadsheets, and other stuff that takes up most of our lives when that stuff will be the very first to be forgotten. How important is that Excel file you made twelve years and two jobs years ago?

3. Teach
When you take the time to teach something to someone else, that piece of knowledge can go a long, long way. Just because you didn't invent something doesn't mean it's not within your power to disseminate that information to others. Your act of passing along knowledge and skills might allow another person to pass it along, and so on. Teaching doesn't have to be your profession. Any time you mentor people at work, or post something informative video on YouTube or write a blog post (cough) or show someone how to play a song, you are becoming an essential part of a chain of information that reverberates into future generations.

4. Something To Keep In Mind
I like the idea that some of the things I am and the things I do will outlive me. It's comforting, in a small but significant way. But before you make it your life's goal to spend what's left of your life doing meaningful things that will ensure your relevance for generations to come, be aware of the following.

First, if you spend all of your time doing things in an effort to be long remembered, you might be missing out on a lot of the things that make your own life memorable. The fun things... personal interactions with friends and lovers, trips to see new and interesting places, enjoying the creative output of other people... these are things that won't influence history on their own, but make your life fun and exciting.

Second, despite all of your best efforts to do and make things that will live past your expiration date, remember that even the things that were written in stone thousands of years ago eventually erode and decay. We're lucky to have sheet music that lets us hear the music that Bach composed. Today, many things never even exist in a tangible format. The music I make on a computer is sold via computers and heard via computers. Even when I try and make a tangible copy (say, on a CD or vinyl record), there's little guarantee that those formats will be able to be used for very long. A few hundred years from now, will a person even be able to access the things I did for my entire life? The answer: perhaps not.

One thing I find good for perspective when I rarely grow concerned about my own mortality: as someone once quite correctly said, in the grand scheme of things, among billions of galaxies hosting trillions of stars and undoubtedly more civilizations that have come and gone than we can even imagine, I'm just not that important. Neither are you. And that's okay.

The final thing to remember about immortality is that in the very, very long term, it's a strong possibility that nothing anyone does in the entire universe will literally last forever. The most common theory about the long-term fate of the universe is the idea of heat death. It's theorized that at a point billions and billions and billions of years in the future, the entire universe will reach thermodynamic equilibrium, and no information will exist or be able to be passed along (and indeed there will be no one to pass them and no one to receive them). Long before that, of course, our star (aka The Sun) will grow into a red giant and incinerate our planet. And long in advance of that, we human beings will have evolved into something else, or (more likely) will have gone extinct for any of a number of viable reasons. But even if we transform ourselves into sentient robots of some kind with supposed infinite lifespans, at some point, there will be no physical way for anything to be remembered, anywhere.

So don't worry too much about being remembered forever, since nothing will be. But making a positive impact on other people's lives today is probably the best way of being fondly remembered for a long time to come, and I can't find anything wrong with making that kind of effort while you're around to do it.

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