There’s something primal about the fear of nonexistence. Sure, spiders and ghouls and demons are creepy and all; but there’s just something deeply vast and dark and disturbing about total emptiness. In fact, nothingness is so incomprehensible – so alien to the human brain, that you will literally begin to go crazy.
Orfield Labs’ anechoic chamber in Minnesota has grown famous as “the quietest place on earth”, and for good reason – it blocks out 99% of all external sound. It doesn’t sound very quiet at first glance, but just take a moment right now to listen to the sounds all around you. If you’re in a house like mine, there’s the ticking of the clock on the wall. There’s the hum of the motor running in the ceiling fan. There’s the whirring of the hard drive in the laptop. There’s the distant sounds of a dog barking. There’s a faint buzz of factory machinery working late into the night. Now imagine all that sound gone – and chances are, if you’re like me, you’re imagining a sharp ringing sound in your ear in the absence of all that background noise.
Our brain is so comfortable with stimuli that it actually freaks out in the absence of it. Ironically, it takes a lot more effort to imagine absolutely nothing than anything else. Researchers have also found that if you tape halves of ping pong balls over your eyes – just enough to cover them and shut out the light, while still allowing you to open your eyelids – you will begin to hallucinate. The brain just cannot take it.
It’s perhaps something inherent to the universe we live in. Even that which we call a vacuum is not completely empty. As incredibly empty outer space is, there is still that odd hydrogen atom floating around. Think about it: our universe has objects so dense that even light cannot escape its gravitational field, yet nowhere there exists a perfect void. We have supernovas bright enough to blind you from billions of miles away and hot enough to liquify our solar system before our brains can even register that it’s happening, yet there is nowhere that is in absolute darkness, or in absolute coldness.
Try and imagine the nothingness before creation – you can’t. Your mind rebels against the thought. Just as difficult – if you don’t believe in heaven, hell, or anything in between – is to imagine an emptiness after death.
Imagine that: Nothing. Forever. The time in between the birth and death of the universe is indescribably small in the enormity that is eternity. The universe can live and die a billion times a billion times, and it still wouldn’t be long enough to be anything of significance in the scheme of forever. What is a human life, compared to these things?
Maybe this is why we strive so hard for immortality.
Regardless of what you believe in or what you call it – heaven, significance, legacy, empire – everyone who has ever lived have strove to live on beyond their deaths. Some believe in a spiritual place where the souls leaves to rest after the physical body has perished. Some believe in leaving something behind on this earth, whether in words, in music, in ideas, or in physical constructs. Realizing how fragile, how short, and how pathetically insignificant life can be, the primal fear of nothingness after death drives us to create. To work. To do whatever it takes to live on, even if it’s only for that little bit longer.
But what does “immortality” even mean? Does it literally mean to live forever? To live beyond one’s natural lifespan? Since the suffix “im-” translates to “not”, we can safely say that “immortality” covers any grounds outside of “mortality”. What, then, does it mean to be mortal?
The word “mortal” comes from the Latin “mortalis”, which means “to be subjected to death”. Death of what, exactly? Of the physical body? Of the soul? Of the memory?
The eminent Isaac Newton, a great scientist (who called himself a “natural philosopher” at that time, because the word “scientist” wasn’t coined yet), was very much into alchemy. The study of transmutation. Of particular interest to him was an object called the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary artifact which could, among other things, turn lead into gold, and grant immortality.
Needless to say, Sir Newton has since passed on with his quest unfinished. While his physical body has been buried, rotted away, and broken down into chemicals; can we say that he has, once and for all, truly died?
There’s a saying that every man dies two deaths: the first when he breathes his last, and the second when his name is uttered for the last time. Sir Newton have died the first death, but he lives on: in our textbooks, in our historical records, and in our memories of the great scientists. He lives on, his memory passed from one mind to the next, whenever someone learns about Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. He lives on when someone, somewhere does calculus. He lives on whenever the story of the falling apple is told.
Even Mr. Shakespeare took a jab at the subject – a very romantic one, to boot, in Sonnet 18. Recall the final lines of the sonnet: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
It appears that while most of us have given up on defying the first death, we still try out hardest to struggle against the second death: the death of our memories. So we give. We live altruistic lives. We sow seeds of ideas into the lives of others. We do good unto our neighbors. We attempt to do great things. We share our thoughts. We teach our children to follow in our ways. Our earthly shells must and will return to dust, but we have found other ways to be immortal.
Now consider this: every word that you have uploaded into the internet will survive for as long as the server does. Every picture ever taken of you will likely outlast you. Papyrus scrolls have been discovered with their writings intact even after thousands of years, and there’s no reason to think that your diary won’t last at least as long. Your government has a file with your picture and information in it, and they will continue to keep that file long after you have passed on. If you give good advice, your advice will live on for generations. If you have children, part of that child’s DNA – and every child that comes out of that – is uniquely yours.
We all strive to leave something behind. We all want to believe that there is some form of life after death. We are all in the pursuit of immortality in a world full of mortal things. In our quest to defy insignificance, to rebel against nothingness, to fight against death – there is something that we’ve missed, or have forgotten:
We have all already achieved immortality.