Death within

We are used to think of a seed or a child in terms of potential. The seed holds in itself the potential to become a tree. The child holds the potential to become an adult human being.

Do we carry death within us? From the moment we are born, from the beginning, an end is sewn to us. The mere beginning creates an end. We don’t know when it will happen, but we know it will. Death is an inherent part of our lives. The closing chapter.

I thought we might end this evening with a discussion of the soul. All of the greatest religions speak of the soul’s endurance before the end of life. So what then does it mean to die?

Eissenheim, The Illusionist

If we carry death within us, can we go as far as to say that we ourselves are death? No. Holding the potential to become something doesn’t mean we are already there. I think of heart failure, the first step of which is… being at risk of developing heart failure (without suffering from it yet). This ‘illogical’ definition helps clinicians identify patients that will be in danger in the future. I wonder whether we could say that by being alive we are at risk of developing death. Well, we are, aren’t we? In fact, being alive is the only prerequisite for dying. The act of becoming dead. The act of losing one’s life. How is that an act? It almost implies there is some volition, instead of being something that happens to us. Dying is our final act. It is an act. And it is ours.

We often depict death as this dark entity with a hood and a scythe. A being different from us that takes away something that belongs to us. Or does our life not belong to us, like a possession? ‘My’ life. The life that I, the supreme ego, lived. Did I live or was I lived? Sometimes this individuality that we endure feels ridiculous. Maybe ‘I’ didn’t really exist, not as a separate entity. Maybe this ‘I’ was just serving the species in this continuum in which one cell dies and is replaced by a new one so that the organism will live.

I watched a documentary film the other day about groups of animals that react as one, and how the individuals at the edge of the group convey a signal that is transmitted by their neighbours to the rest of the group in such a way that a collective response is triggered. Like cells in a body, except that cells play more specialised roles. Just like we play more specialised roles in this collective body that we call society. Individuality is tolerated to a certain extent.

The dying cell has been useful to the body and will be replaced by a new cell. This new cell will make its contribution and, eventually, it will also die and be replaced. No mourning, it’s just the necessary turnover. It serves the organism. And similarly, one individual dies to leave space for the new individual, who will also serve the species.

Interestingly, cells come with mechanisms of programmed obsolescence (telomere shortening and other senescence mechanisms). And human bodies do too. Our death is not just foretold, it is programmed in our genes, on purpose. The gift of the Secondborn, as Tolkien would put it. Selected through evolution as a positive trait, so that we will leave space for younger individuals who will also serve the species, moving it forward (whatever ’forward’ might mean).

Our species, the sum of all human individuals as one. The god we serve. Human sacrifices to the gods seem a distant memory of ancient civilisations, but do we not sacrifice individual lives for the greater good? We ‘belong’ to a species. It doesn’t seem the word was casually chosen. Are we bred to serve our species like a god, as in Matrix?

Hen syndrorro, oños. Hen ñuqir, perzys. Hen morghot, glaeson
(From darkness, light. From ashes, fire. From death, life)

Melisandre’s prayer in Game of Thrones

The myth of the endless cycle of death and rebirth, so fiercely engrained in our brains. Death is encoded in us, as is life. It is our final trick. Our final service to our species. Unavoidable, sad maybe, but necessary. I am in no hurry to serve my species in such a way, but I have to accept that one day, hopefully a long time in the future, another cell will replace me in the most natural, uncaring way. Who did I replace? Did I care?

There is one thing I do wonder, though. During embryonic development, cells know exactly how many times they must divide to produce an organ. Cells also know when they have finished building a human body, they won’t just keep dividing until the body reaches gigantic proportions. No, they stop. I wonder if our species has something encoded in our genome that will make us stop and say, “this is enough, we should grow no more”.

This point is possibly still far away. I would say that, as a society, we are in our late adolescence, trying to become independent from our (symbolic) parents, acquiring a conscience of our own self and an awareness of our own power, barely controlling it. Maybe in a million years we will have an answer. Well, not me, but someone who will be like me in the far future. Me, now, I’m just curious.

My intention has only been to entertain,
nothing more.

Eissenheim, The Illusionist