The gift of the Secondborn

I was thinking about those films in which a character is in his or her death bed (usually his, not sure why). He is about to die and he suddenly wishes he had just an extra day for all those things he did not do in the last few months, years or decades. What would he do? Talk to someone to finally say that which was left unsaid (as in Sandor Marai’s Embers), meet someone for the last time, visit some particular place… Or who knows, we always imagine people doing good deeds in their final days, but they might use this time to kill someone or burn something down. My feeling, however, is that they would use that last day to do exactly what they had done the previous day and the day before that one: nothing. At least, none of those things. These days, locked down, I hear some people say they are bored. What if we knew that tomorrow was our last day, what would we do with it?

Nothing offers so much perspective on one’s life as death. In The Silmarillion, Iluvatar gives the Secondborn (men) a gift: the gift of death, in contrast to elves, the Firstborn, who do not age or die (unless killed). Sorry about the explanation, just in case you’re not familiar with Tolkien’s universe. When I first read The Silmarillion, as a teenager, I did not understand why anybody would consider death a gift. Like men in the book, I would have envied the elves and consider my “gift” most inconvenient and, above all, utterly unfair. Now, however, I see things differently.

If we were immortal, the first thing that would disappear is urge. Nothing would be urgent. We would have all the time in the world to do everything. Life would be more contemplative. Since there was no hurry, we would do fewer things per day, which means we would dedicate part of the day to reflect on our lives. We would not have to rush to do things before we die, to drink every second of life because it could be the last. Time is the measure of change. If we were immortal, time would not have the same effect on us. Even if we changed at some point, even if we evolved slowly, part of us would remain unaltered, unchanged, still. Like a stone. Rush would be defined by that which is not eternal, seasons, the life of plants, animals, mortal men… always in a hurry. We accomplish things because we are mortal, because we have to make the most of whatever time is given to us. We travel, we write, we paint, we fight, we search, we “live” precisely because we will one day not live.

With age, I have come to realise that life, at least life as I know it, is all about purpose. We humans are perpetually dissatisfied. As soon as we achieve a goal, we need a new one. We never reach the end of the rainbow. Maybe it’s the reward system in our brain, always demanding more, pushing us like addicts. I guess this was positively selected by evolution, so it must imply some sort of advantage. Maybe elvish brains would have evolved differently and elves would be content as they were, without this need for change that consumes us humans. An incessant drive that will not let us be, that will keep pushing us even when there is no real need for it. This is why we build cathedrals, why we went to the moon, why we developed philosophy. We can’t stand still.

But what would happen if we achieved absolute fulfillment? What would happen if we didn’t feel that hole in ourselves any longer, if our quest for truth, for balance, for inner peace… was forever fulfilled? If our search was truly over. Well, I guess, if we truly felt complete, then our life as we know it would no longer have a meaning. There would be only one thing left for us to do: die.

Absolute completeness would lead us to death, as we would no longer have aims, we would have no purpose. So then, is it failure that keeps us alive? Or at least the lack of complete success. What an encouraging thought… At the same time, it is discouraging to realise that reaching the end of the rainbow, impossible as it is due to our very nature, would lead us to death. Or at least, to the end of our life as we know it.

So it is our lack of satisfaction that gives us the necessary drive to keep going. Purpose. Life. Next time we complain that we haven’t (yet) achieved our goals fully, let’s remember that this is precisely what keeps us alive.

I realise now that this is the reason why Mick Jagger is still so young… because he can get no satisfaction…