My partner and I were talking about Captain America the other day. A discussion on how Captain America was frozen for however many years to wake up in a whole other age progressed to a conversation on cryogenics, or cryonics, which I read a long Wait but Why blog post on about a month ago. My partner said he and a friend had agreed the other day that having your body “frozen” (actually technically not, but I’m going to use the term anyway because it’s easiest) to wake up in the future when scientists have worked out how to bring you back would be an excellent plan. He could see a new age, see what happened, how the world had progressed, and put off dying for a while longer. With so many people and songs and films always saying how wonderful it would be to be immortal, I started feeling like a sad odd one out for thinking differently.
I am not good at thinking on my feet. It’s an introvert quality; that we need time to go away and process our thoughts before bringing out a solid argument. My partner does not have this quality. As an academic, he’s very good at presenting an excellent argument at the drop of a hat. This can leave me feeling confused and frustrated at my own inarticulateness, especially with phone conversations like this one. So here, a few days later, is why I have no desire to sign up for cryonics.
I have often found it strange when people say they would like to live forever. I feel like they need to add a few caveats onto that: if I have unlimited money and don’t have to work. If the person I love is also immortal. If if if. I love life (one thing I doubted in my existential crisis after this phone call the other day) but that doesn’t stop a lot of it being hard work and tiresome. It seems to me this is mainly due to money. What a pain in the arse. The older I get the more it seems to me that you never feel like you have a comfortable amount of it, which may have a lot to do with living in London and being part of Generation Y – studies have shown we are one of the worst-off generations in history. It’s all very well reading articles about how the greatest things in life are the scent of jasmine when you’re walking home in the dark, or watching a sunset, or other things money can’t buy. I totally agree. But that doesn’t stop money being sadly necessary to do stuff like eat and have a roof over your head. I’m fairly sure nobody would want to live forever if that forever meant being starving and homeless. But then I’ve never been starving and homeless, so maybe I shouldn’t say that.
This train of thought brought me to the story of Tithonus, a figure in Greek mythology and the subject of a famous Tennyson poem I studied for A level. Tithonus is desperately in love with the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and begs her to make him immortal so they can be together for eternity. She adores him so she acquiesces, but they both forgot something. He is immortal, but not forever young. While she is reborn anew each morning, ever beautiful and lovely, he ages every day and becomes more and more miserable. He looks down on earth and is deeply envious of all the mortals who get to live their lives, then die and rest. It is a very sad story but one that makes me think that that’s something else people want but don’t say when they claim to want to live forever, or wake up in another age: if I’m young enough and compos mentis enough to enjoy it and keep learning and loving.
My first question when my partner said he would want to be cryogenically frozen was: okay, so you wake up x years into the future – and then what? You won’t know anyone. And he said ‘I don’t know, go out and meet someone…?’ which made me think wtf on several levels. 1) ‘Go out and meet someone,’ whether it’s intended to or not, sounds like you’re wandering into bars in search of a boyfriend/girlfriend. I was not happy that his initial thought about this seemed to be that he would wake up, and think, ‘Oh! My partner is dead! Oh well, whatevs. I’ll go find someone else’ like I was an umbrella that had been left behind in a restaurant. 2) It highlighted to me the differences in our personalities. Just ‘going out and meeting someone’ completely cold is something I often can’t do now, in my own time and space, without feeling extremely anxious. 3) Imagine someone from a hundred years ago waking up today and popping out to try and meet someone. Many of the rules of society and how we interact and communicate have totally changed, and I wouldn’t expect a hundred years from now to be any different.
4) My question to him is my biggest question on cryogenics, and his nonchalant answer completely threw me for six. Think about it. You wake up tomorrow and everyone you ever knew or loved or cared about is gone. There is only you left. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in the wake of the Paris attacks, when we were talking about the possibility of a similar attack in London. She said she wasn’t afraid of being killed, she was afraid of being the one left behind. This is exactly my feelings. Waking up like that, and being completely and utterly alone in the world, is my greatest fear. I love all the free treasured moments in life and the stuff money can buy me and all that jazz, but ultimately I want to spend time with the people I love and care about. And if I woke up one day after being frozen for however many years, they would all be lost. Assuming that the human race still existed and I hadn’t been brought round by robots, there would be new people I could go out and meet and care about, of course. But would you ever get over the grief of all those people you would never see again? In my life I’ve only lost one person who I really, really loved. It was eight years ago and thinking about him still makes me feel such pain that I’ll never get to see or talk to him again. Imagine that magnified dozens of times over for all the people you left behind. Another friend pointed out that it was interesting that this conversation arose out of a discussion of Captain America, as apparently one of the messages of the second film is that being alive in a time not your own sucks. He misses all the people he used to know.
The Wait but Why blog ended with some fairly sweeping and, to my mind, stupid observations about life and death. Their argument was that one day cryogenics would be the norm as resuscitation is the norm now, and that it would be considered unethical not to freeze a dying child or similar to prolong their life. I don’t really understand this argument. Why would you want to freeze a dying child unless you had a way of bringing them back and making them well? And if you could make them well by freezing them, why freeze them for ages to have them brought back in the future when their parents and friends and siblings are long dead? Just freeze them for ten minutes and bring them back. And I’m not entirely clear on how we will be kept alive in the future if our bodies are broken in the present enough for us to die. This is also banking on science in the future finding cures for everything so they can wake you up, prod you with a laser and cure your cancer or stick your brain back together or similar. But I still have the question, then what? What do you do then? I feel like people confuse this with time travel sometimes: if you could fall asleep today and wake up in the future exactly as you are, would that be great? Maybe. If you didn’t really give a damn about the people you knew enough to want to stay for them, then sure. But that would be waking up in the future healthy. It would be totally different to wake up aged and struggling. I don’t see how death is going to be cured completely, and what a sad day for the planet if it was.
The Wait but Why blog said that death is currently our tyrannical overlord, that rules our lives and that everyone is terrified of and spending time and effort avoiding but ultimately doing nothing about escaping from, because it’s inevitable. I’m calling bullshit on this idea. I don’t want to die but I am not afraid of death. I was worried for a while after this conversation that I was actually suicidal without noticing, as all the talk of living for longer periods or waking up again in the future just made me feel totally exhausted. Oh God, more hassle with bills and admin and train delays? Ugh. I was frightened for a while that that meant I wasn’t enjoying my life at all. As someone who suffers from depressive moods, I do sometimes have times when, as Matt Haig put it in the melodramatically titled yet excellent ‘Reasons to Stay Alive,’ you don’t want to die, but you just don’t want to be. It’s as if you want a switch and for someone to say, if you flick this, you will cease to be or have been. Nobody will be hurt or sad, but you will be gone, and you won’t have to worry about anything anymore or feel lonely or lost or like everything is an inconceivable amount of effort. That’s the switch depressives want sometimes. But it’s not quite the same to my mind as being suicidal, because you don’t exactly want to die, and leave everyone around you to be sad, and give up on everything and everyone you love. Except on the darkest days, there is hope for happiness in the future. It is only when those darkest days become the everyday norm that depressives start seeing suicide like it’s an escape from a burning building. I decided that thinking immortality would be exhausting is not the same as not enjoying life as it is – I really do enjoy most of it and I don’t want to be dead.
As I said before, my greatest fear is of being left behind totally alone. I am more frightened of this than of dying. I’ve never quite understood films like I am Legend (which, disclaimer, I don’t think I’ve actually seen). If it was me and I had ascertained beyond reasonable doubt that I was the only human left, I’d go to the top of a very tall building, and jump. What would be the point in carrying on alone? And what is so awful about death that living in a barren wilderness full of nothing is preferable? Of course, if you are being brought round in the future it’s unlikely it will be a totally empty planet, but I can guarantee it will be bizarre and confusing and frightening. And although death is certain and final, and while you are alive there is an outside chance things will improve, there is also a comfort in death being so final, inescapable, an inevitable release. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic but the ways the news is going at the moment I can’t see the future being a funfair. Imagine if you “died” around the end of the Second World War, and woke up today to find that a lot of those horrible attitudes and beliefs are coming back? We are not on a guaranteed march towards progress, we are taking steps back and, if you are taking the least optimistic view, potentially allowing the worst of history to repeat itself.
To go back to the idea of death being so frightening: I disagree. I can even quote Harry Potter to support my argument here, when Dumbledore explains to Harry that the Philosopher’s Stone will be destroyed, so that Voldemort (the ultimate character terrified of death above all things) cannot try to get hold of the Elixir of Life. Harry says, but then, won’t Nicolas Flamel die? Yes, Dumbledore says, he will die: “it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day.” I want to live and enjoy myself for as long as I have, but I am not afraid of having my ‘little life rounded with a sleep.’ Even if I was told tomorrow I only have six weeks to live, I would not want to be put in a box to be woken up some time in the future. I will accept what I have, and try to make the most of it. The things that make life worth it are here, and now. I find dying preferable to the idea of going to sleep but then finding that I’m not done after all, I have more time, but what I loved and who I loved and everything I know are gone, and I’ll never get them back.
Some people might argue, okay, well what if you’re loved ones were also frozen and could be there with you when you woke up? This seems to me to be highly unlikely. Aside from the fact that many scientists say cryonics is never going to work anyway, the circumstances of someone’s death that could lead to a successful “unfreezing” are very specific. You would need to die naturally, preferably in a cryogenics centre or a hospital that is happy to put you directly on ice so your brain doesn’t start to decompose. If you die and aren’t found for a while, even a few hours, or you are killed in an accident, particularly causing damage to the brain, the chances of you being brought round are slim. Frankly, I am still more frightened of the possibility of waking up alone than I am of just dying, and being at peace. This is just my opinion, and I know a lot of people won’t share it. It’s certainly an interesting debate, and I haven’t even touched on the potential moralistic side of it: should we be able to do this? If we can all come back to life, where is everyone going to live? The planet is pretty full already. If you are brought round and are still of working age, do you then have to go out and get a job? How would you even do that in an age where everything is unfamiliar? I know I have to some extent conflated the idea of immortality with cryogenics in this post, and obviously they aren’t the same thing. But I think people who are asking to be frozen are thinking of it in terms of immortality, as I’m sure they won’t be thinking about a potential second death in that far distant future. For me, I will rely on my imagination to see what the world will be like in a hundred years. I don’t want to be there.