This essay is part of a longer work about the central role of mortality in sustainability, ethics and the human experience. It is scheduled to be published as part of a new book, Heroic Compassion: Life, Death and Destiny in the Human Epoch, in 2017.
We will soon face the necessity — and the opportunity — of voluntarily limiting our own life spans for the good of others.
We are almost ready to acknowledge the necessity of our own mortality. When we do, we will finally realize the full heroic potential of our species.
Our heroic potential is based on humanity’s unique capacity for compassion and sacrifice.
Technology is helping us live long lives. A lot of smart people are working very hard to help us live even longer, maybe hundreds of years. In fact, human longevity may be the central preoccupation of science today. We’ve actually doubled our life expectancy in the last 150 years. Various researchers today believe we’re close to curing diabetes, influenza, meningitis, heart disease, leukemia, breast cancer and prostate cancer. The big thinkers at Google have set their sights even higher. The giant search-engine company is funding broad research aimed at preventing aging itself with a vision of a world in which no person would ever grow old or, presumably, die.
Yet our mortality is necessary to the health, prosperity and the very survival of future human generations, not to mention every other living thing on this planet. The human population has more than doubled IN MY LIFETIME. Every environmental problem, every vexing puzzle of human sustainability, is traceable back to the rapid growth of our population. If we acknowledge that human overpopulation could exhaust resources and threaten the habitat, then human longevity obviously is a major risk factor.
So we may be called upon, individually, to volunteer to die.
The good news is, we are capable of realizing this necessity and of making this sacrifice. After all, people give their lives every day in the service of their societies. Soldiers, police officers, firefighters and physicians all risk their lives on a daily basis to protect other people. The evidence is clear: We will sacrifice our own lives for the greater good.
As a species, we now have the chance to realize this potential for heroic compassion on a global scale. Individually. One heroic person at a time.
When we acknowledge the necessity of our own deaths, we will fulfill humanity’s destiny as the most compassionate and heroic creatures in the universe, the only creatures capable of making this sacrifice consciously.
That’s pretty exciting, don’t you think?
The idea has changed my experience of life, entirely for the better. After it occurred to me that my own mortality was necessary to the health and happiness of future generations — including my own great-great-grandchildren — death was no longer so frightening. I mean, if I had the choice between immortality and children, I would choose to die. Rather than going on forever I would want those future generations of children to live in my place. When I realized I have chosen death, it suddenly doesn’t seem so frightening any more. Death is the destiny I want.
Plus, my new awareness of the human potential for heroic compassion caused me to see people — all people — in a new light. Each of the people surrounding me in the airport terminal is capable of heroic sacrifice. All the people on the train, each person in the restaurant, even the harried shoppers in line at the grocery store are each capable of accepting death so that others may live.
If we fail to meet the challenge, then the degradation of our only viable habitat — Earth — is on us. The extinctions are on us. The suffering is on us. In a sense, it’s an evolutionary challenge. We need compassion to survive. If we are wiped out by some environmental, military or health catastrophe related to overpopulation, then we have failed to adapt in time.
Past generations developed strong bodies and brains. They invented technology that has supported our expansion across the globe.
Today, the remarkable evolutionary challenge we face is literally a set of natural conditions requiring that we exercise compassion more effectively.
Photo by Fotolia/Natalia Sinjushina