The great Freddie Mercury once sang: “Who wants to live forever?” It was one of the most memorable moments in the Queen pantheon. Freddie was no opera singer, for sure, but he could belt out an anthem, and he sang it as if he already knew that he was not long for this earth. I heard the song again recently (like so many old pop favourites, it was being used to sell something or other), and I felt a poignancy that I could not have experienced when I was thirteen, the year that the song was first released. But now, older, certain thoughts arrive unbidden. Thoughts of mortality, even. You cannot help but think about the previously unthinkable as you age.
Who wants to live forever? Although he died young and some time ago now, Freddie Mercury is still a star. And I guess he will continue to be, for as long as pop music retains its hold on the world’s imagination. A great artist does live forever, somehow, in the music of our minds, or the more tangible legacy of his work, for as long as people show an interest in it.
But what hope of a longer life is there for the rest of us, the normal folk? A lot more than there was twenty years ago. Scientists, it seems, are on the verge of discovering how to extend the human life span. Recent news articles have been suggesting that we may soon be able to live an extra fifty years. Will it be done by injection, implant, transplant, or transfusion? No one is saying, yet. It may or may not be painful, this procedure, but I bet it will be expensive. And once fifty years has been tacked on, no doubt (in the inflationary, acquisitive way of the capitalist system) it will be superseded by an extension of a century, then two—until, at last, immortality?
Ah, to be immortal. The ultimate accessory! If you were told that you had just had your DNA tweaked so that you would not age henceforth, but would live forever at the same age as you are now, would you not jump for joy? Or might you, much against your will, recall some hoary old sci-fi story in which the last person on earth stands alone and remote among the ruins of civilisation? Such thoughts tend to diminish the pleasing notion of immortality. So one might not want to live too long, because eventually we are bound to destroy ourselves (we do seem rather to be heading in that direction), but, then, exactly how long should one live, given a choice? Another century, or two, perhaps? Think on this: all of your friends would be dead (unless they too could afford the millions it would cost for the Longevity Process©). How old would you have to be before you got tired of selecting a new mate every generation or so, or of having to make a new circle of friends again, because the old lot had all died off? But you wouldn’t want to be a hermit, would you, locked away with your reams of memories, your panoply of pains and pleasures?
And then consider this: your flesh might be dewy and supple, your breasts and buttocks ever taut and tempting—but what about your mind? How would you stop that from aging? (The boffins are conspicuously silent on the subject.) If your body remained youthful but your brain continued to age (in thought, if not in matter), until it had become a desiccated walnut, how could you stop yourself from becoming thoroughly disenchanted with the myriad assaults of daily life? I mean, some weeks are pretty unbearable now. Or, as Hamlet put it (although not quite in the context we are discussing),
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
How much time would have to pass before life became unliveable, and the thought of just one more day made you reach into the kitchen drawer, pull out a knife (the bare bodkin, in Hamlet’s phrase) and plunge it into your own heart? Perhaps immortality is not so enticing, after all.
And look at how popular culture sees extended life. Vampires! Zombies! A curse, not a blessing. These horrible symbols of everlasting (half-) life suggest that if we are given eternal life, the trade-off will be eternal hunger—for other people’s lives. We might end up living forever, but never being able to live with ourselves. Some future.
If you practise meditation, you will know that what we are trying to achieve through its consistent application is itself a kind of eternity. Eternity in the now. Some call it a state of bliss. But bliss has become a word more often found nowadays in the description of spa treatments in women’s magazines. I don’t think bliss can really exist for us in today’s world; it is an idea that came and went with Romanticism. We are just too self-centred to be swept away for longer than a two-hour spa treatment. Another term is needed to describe what meditation can do for us, which is, specifically, to let us shed beliefs, expectations, and preconceptions. All the baggage that we have grown up with that foments conflict inside us, causing us to make the wrong decisions, limiting our capacity to grow, denying us the right to be our true selves. Meditation can draw us into the present moment and banish the dark dungeons of the past and the rose-tinted spectacles of the future. Oh, to live life free from expectations of how we thought (or how we were taught) life should be—and our oh-so inevitable disappointment when it does not turn out like that. Is that not devoutly to be wished? We cannot, must not blame ourselves if life seems unreasonable. Modern life is a continuous assault on our senses, our sense of self, and our sanity. But meditation does help. You do not need futuristic medicine. You do not need millions of dollars. You can do it for yourself now (with the help, initially, of a good meditation teacher).
What are those people who dream of an extended life span really saying about themselves? That they cannot find comfort in the present. To them I would advise: Meditate. Make the life you are living now the one you truly want to live. If you are looking for immortality, write a profound book, make some awe-inspiring art, become an astonishing vocalist (RIP, Freddie Mercury). If you do it well enough, the whole world and its future generations will benefit from your “immortality,” not just you.