Life and Death

November 17, 2003

Q. This is a kind of life-and-death question. I've been thinking about what I would call the irrational desire to stay alive longer than seems reasonable or pertinent. I know some of that is in the Overleaves. What part of it is the instinctual part of our nature? How much of that instinctual part can override our Life Task, our Life Plan, our Overleaves?

A. It is of course typical of the body to want to live. It is also of course typical of the body to want to live maximally, so the assumption in the desire for longevity is that the ongoing life will not in fact become a painful, unpleasant, intolerable burden. As creatures of reason, the negative implications can in fact outweigh the natural species inclination to strive to life. However, when confronted with the balance between what you may call quality-of-life issues and longevity itself, generally speaking, where the body has the inherent strength to persevere, it will tend to do so, aided and abetted by Overleaf persuasions that eventually everything is going to be "okay". It is only when there is recognition that "okayness" has passed out of bounds that the ensouled perception allows the simian body to release the emphatic hold upon life.

This can be perceived in a different way amongst animals, for whom death holds no fear because of course fear is based on worry, which is based on apprehension. Where worry and apprehension are lost, fear of the event cannot exist, and so particularly in elderly animals, release from that which has become intolerable is not only acceptable but indeed welcome, which is why old cats purr nearing death.

That does not mean that there is not a biological inclination to strive to life. Of course this exists, and is demonstrably present in all forms of life above sponges. However, at the mammalian level, functionality and comfort become as much a part of longevity as the ability to eat, procreate, and excrete, and this in fact becomes, in ensouled humans, quality-of-life issues [sic]. For those human fragments -- or, for that matter, cetacean fragments -- confronting longevity, [it] tends to be more welcome where instances of physical imposition are minimal, and less welcome when the burdens of age tend to outweigh the advantage of cumulative years and experience. These are questions every fragment will resolve for him- or herself as "time goes by" (ha-ha).