James Heaney on the pitfalls of an eternal existence 

 

‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ Those were the now famous words of Benjamin Franklin, recorded in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. I think, in all honesty, we can probably be certain of a hell of a lot more: the loss of our looks (I discovered another two grey hairs in the mirror today… on my head in case you were wondering), pointless security questions at airports, and severe halitosis when Indian cuisine is mixed with Jack Daniels, tequila and champagne on a night out. However, do Franklin’s once-wise words still have some relevance today?

Firstly, of course, we would have to agree that taxes remain an unavoidable part of life; a seemingly easy feat when VAT even gets added to a bicycle spoke nowadays. Therefore, if we put aside the minority who drain the system’s resources whilst unashamedly dodging the associated taxes quicker than Cheryl Cole jumping behind a hedgerow to avoid dear old Simon Cowell (more on him later), we can agree that taxes are generally unavoidable. Yet what are we to think of Franklin’s other inevitability: death?

The boundaries between science fiction and reality have become ever more blurred when concerned with the subject of immortality, thanks for the most part to recent leaps in scientific discovery. To highlight this point, according to a 2004 BBC News article, the first thousand-year-old human will already have been born. Whilst some might see this as a medical miracle, the fact remains that they’ll probably need more face-lifts than Joan Rivers and Joan Collins put together, just to keep their eyelids from drooping over their face like a skin concertina. On a more serious note; however, it seems that due to the advances made, individuals who are already aged as old as 60 might be able to prolong their life indefinitely and witness their thousandth year. Now, I love my aunts and uncles but do I want to spend another 940 years listening to the same stories and bad jokes at Christmas parties? I think not. Furthermore, if this trend continues, we can deduce that in the future, a human might well be able to live for eternity. Sorry about that Mr. Franklin – the world has changed rather a lot since your witty observation.

Whether or not this change in the landscape of life is a good one is the question that will surely come to be answered as the world progresses. It is true that, in time, our rapidly evolving society might dictate that we all live a life much longer than the current norm. However, whilst science gradually overcomes the hurdles currently facing human health, those who choose to actively pursue eternal life bypass all these hurdles in favour of one option; the final hurdle: cryogenic freezing (cryonics). Personally, if I had my way, I’d be on the other side of this hurdle, poised with a sharpened javelin, ready to hurl it at the first part of the personified cryonics monster to come into view… and I’d aim straight for the gonads. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that in this communal race we call ‘life’, the tragedy is that death (unable to be avoided by the powers of man since the beginning of time) is not the guaranteed position on the finishing podium it once was… or at least, not for all of us.

It is important to clarify that I am in no way arguing that science is to be reprimanded for developing life-saving procedures such as organ replacements or for treating those with terminal illnesses, whilst they are still living within the parameters of what we would call a natural life expectancy (fitting in with society’s norms at any given time). These achievements are the true miracles of science that we should all celebrate and glory in, as they increase a person’s quality of life. However, cryonics, which involves the freezing of a recently deceased corpse, should be prohibited. This method is not concerned with improving the quality of an existing life or enabling someone to fulfill a healthy life term with their nearest and dearest. What cryogenic freezing does is aid those individuals who wish to outlive us all and cheat death – individuals who give little or no thought to the consequences of their actions but instead place more importance on their own gain above our global society.

A recent article by Tony Rennell discussed Robert Ettinger – a notable American science teacher and science fiction writer, who, on his deathbed at the grand old age of 92, was thrown into a tub of liquid nitrogen… and in turn was thrown into the unknown in an attempt at self-preservation. Obviously, Ettinger wasn’t actually thrown into the tub (more’s the pity). His submergence was a much more delicate procedure after first having his blood replaced with anti-freeze and electronic probes inserted into his brain, which are to be used to monitor activity when he is eventually (if ever) ‘awakened’.

Does that sound appealing to you? In my opinion, 92 years of life on Earth should be enough time for anyone. Some might defensively say that it’s likely his attempt to come back in the future is destined for failure, whilst others might argue that Ettinger was harmlessly exercising his own free will and that nobody was affected by his decision. However, if everyone alive were to follow his example (adding to a constantly growing number of bodies suspended between life and death) and the time came when we could all be unfrozen, it would lead to intense and probably violent competition for the limited resources available. Simply to avoid mass starvation amongst the ‘reawakened’, control of reproduction would have to be implemented on an international and unprecedented scale. In turn, this would undoubtedly lead to a plethora of other rules and laws; restricting the life choices available to those who have waited so long for a second shot at life… sound like fun? After just a few hundred years of repetitive and monotonous familiarity, I can’t see the birthday bumps having the same appeal, especially when given by the friend you’ve known for a thousand years and would much rather never see again… I have a feeling I’d only return the tribute on their birthday by punching them in the face instead.

The first official recorded freezing of a human being – James Bedford – occurred in January 1967. However, if the rumours are true, Walt Disney – possibly one of the most creative and inspiring people in history – was frozen one month prior to this, after his own death. The speculation about the man is, if anything, further fuelled by his instrumental involvement with animated classics such as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’: both of which contain a heroine suspended between life and death, plastered in make-up and looking every bit the picture of health, whilst having a nice long nap. It is, therefore, easy to imagine the eccentric genius choosing to emulate these two protagonists by playing the central part in a much more physical fairy tale. Even if the rumours aren’t true, the legends that surround Walt Disney’s own life, combined with his animated works, will keep him alive in humanity’s heart for eternity.

However, if the stories surrounding Disney are true, then he will not be alone in his choice to be frozen. The list of those expressing an interest in cryonics is quickly growing and a recent addition includes music and television mogul Simon Cowell, who recently went public with his own intention of being frozen… or at least more frozen (if his latest batch of botox is doing the job). Whilst this means the horrifying prospect of him subjecting future audiences to the agony of his torturous ‘talent’ contests, I think Mr. Cowell is actually the perfect poster-boy for the process. I thoroughly encourage him to undergo the freezing procedure – preferably as soon as possible. Hopefully, people will then realise that only someone as self-obsessed and vain as Simon would ever entertain the idea and find it altogether a rather more revolting venture.

At the danger of drawing on too many threads, on the subject of death, the world’s most beloved wizard Albus Dumbledore said: ‘To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.’ Perhaps to those who opt for cryogenic freezing, that method of self-preservation is just as much an adventure as death. However, they do not consider the fact that, whatever happens to the rest of us sensible folk when we die, we at least cease to be demanding drains on the material world. It is possible to forgive those pioneers of the past who probably failed to understand the implications of their novel decision to be frozen. However, I sincerely hope cryonics does not succeed in recruiting more supporters in the future… I don’t want to live in a world where we evolve into a bunch of self-preserving Voldemorts and Cowells; desperately clinging to our own lives. I certainly don’t fancy the red eyes or slit-like nostrils, especially if coupled with a baggy t-shirt, nipple-high trousers and an army regulation buzz-cut.

To my mind, there is much greater merit in embracing the traditional human destiny: a journey where we aim to live our natural life term to the full, with medical tweaks and interventions when necessary along the way. I hope my own journey beyond the veil is some years away, but when my time eventually comes to leave this physical world of ours, I will embrace it as a step into the next stage of life and not as a tragic ending, wherever it may take me. I therefore choose to embrace both death and taxes. And in the mean time… I shall keep my javelin sharpened.

 

James Heaney

 

Image 1 – Wikimedia Commons

Image 2 – Wikimedia Commons

Image 3 – Wikimedia Commons