This question immediately makes me think of Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood (played by the fabulous John Barrowman). I suppose my first question would be about what “live forever” means. Is it a Tolkienian elvish sort of thing (never dying of old age, always youthful, but capable of dying due to other causes)? Maybe like a Time Lord (regenerations being able to save them from many things that would kill a human but not everything)? Or is it like Captain Jack Harkness?
If “living forever” meant Jack’s kind of immortality — a true immortality — I would never choose it. For so many reasons, it sounds more like a nightmare than a blessing. He simply cannot stay dead — he was buried alive for thousands of years; he was blown to bits by an explosion; he was buried in wet cement — and he still lived. He died so many times, in so many ways, and yet he came back to life each time. In the wrong hands, he could be tortured for all of eternity.
Even if I could somehow guarantee that I wouldn’t die in horrible ways, I wouldn’t choose Jack’s fate. He lived so many lives; he loved and lost so many people. Over and over and over again — either you get close to people and lose them, or you never become close to anyone for eternity. Part of what makes life worth living are the people in our lives. The idea of not having beloved people in my life, either because they continually die or because I can no longer bear the pain and grief of losing them, does not make an endless life seem like a desirable thing.
Additionally, if I couldn’t die, I’d constantly have to be hiding so that no one would find out (that, or let people know and be experimented upon — there’s no way that the world would just allow someone incapable of dying to simply live out their life as they wished). It would be suspicious if I never aged, never died. I’d never really be able to put down (figurative) roots, to remain part of a community. I suppose it might be possible that I could eventually “come out” as immortal, but it seems as though it would put a target on my back — people would always want to see if there’s a way to recreate my immortality or perhaps see if it’s really true that I can’t die. If everyone knew I couldn’t die, would my life really be my own? I like to think of myself as a decent sort of person. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t typically let someone die if I could help it (I’m not, by the way, talking Peter Singer-type extremes). And if I can’t die, shouldn’t I be running into burning buildings to save people, or dismantling bombs, or . . . I don’t know, doing something dangerous that might kill others but wouldn’t kill me?
Even if I had loved ones with me who also couldn’t die, I don’t know if I would want to be incapable of dying like Jack. Part of what makes life special is that it is finite. I think that the desire to live life to its fullest would lessen if you knew that you would have infinite chances to do as you wished. Maybe immortality would be brilliant for a while — for the first few hundred years, even for the first few thousand years. But for millions of years? Trillions? It seems as though it would eventually become some kind of endless trap, a trap from which there is truly no escape. What would that even mean? I don’t think I can actually comprehend what it would mean to literally live forever.
Let’s get a little perspective. It’s estimated that modern humans (well, relatively modern) have been around for roughly 200,000 years. The genus Homo has been around for fewer than 2.5 million years. Think of how much has changed in such a (relatively, compared to, say, the universe, or someone who would never die for good) short amount of time. Or, for a better visual, compare life when dinosaurs roamed the Earth to life now; it’s very different. Then imagine those kinds of changes, over and over again.
I think of an episode of Doctor Who, “Utopia,” from Season Three — the Doctor, Martha (his current companion), and Jack go to the end of the universe, the year 100 trillion. It is not a world, or time, in which I’d want to live. In the show, between the current time and the year 100 trillion, amazing things happen — it’s not as though the show presumes that everything goes downhill from now. And, of course, I’m not saying that life is going to follow Doctor Who, but it shows an example of how much the world could change. I’d like to think that the world will only get better, but honestly, we can’t know that. So much could happen.
There is currently the idea of death as the final escape — no matter how bad anything gets, it will eventually end because we all eventually die. The concept of time would change — if it will never end, people’s lives would be gone in an amount of time that could feel like nothing. What’s even 80 or 100 years compared to billions? And when the sun dies, if we haven’t found some way to reach a different solar system, what then?
Would I like to lead a long (and happy) life? Yes. Would I like to retain my mental and physical agility? Yes. Do I sometimes feel as though there is more I want to experience, more I want to learn, than I can fit into my expected lifespan? Yes. “The Circle of Life” does resonate with me (“There’s more to see than can ever be seen / More to do than can ever be done / There’s far too much to take in here / More to find than can ever be found”). But that doesn’t mean I would want to be truly immortal and live forever. Chosing between Captain Jack Harkness’ eternal life and my own mortal life, however long it may last, I’d chose my own mortality every time.