The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Monday, February 16, 2015
Philosophy ... Religion ...

I was listening to the local NPR station one evening and they were playing an interview with the author of a children’s book called “Tuck Everlasting”. The author’s name is Natalie Babbitt, and the book tells a story about a family (the Tucks) living way out in the middle of some forest. In their travels, they came across a spring of water one day, and took a few drinks from it. It turned out that this particular springwater has the power to make you immortal. They came across the spring a long, long time ago, and by all rights they should all be dead by the time of the story. But they (and their horse, which also took a few sips) hadn’t aged a day. And it don’t look like they are going to.

In the story, a little girl from a local village decides one day to take a hike in the woods, and happens across the same spring. She’s thirsty and is about to drink up, when someone in the Tuck family comes across her and yells out “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” He runs toward her and leaps and tackles her in slo-mo, just as she raises her cupped hands to her lips. Well, maybe not (this book was written in 1975, before everything had to be a violent action-adventure in the Terminator style); but they still dissuaded her from taking that fateful sip.

There’s a lot more to the plot, but the leitmotif of Tuck Everlasting is about whether anyone should really want to live forever. Babbitt doesn’t think so, and thus the story line follows. The immortal Tuck family isn’t very happy at all with their permanent exemption from death, and they convince those who haven’t yet drank from that spring that they are better off.

I wasn’t aware of Tuck Everlasting as a child; I was in my senior year of college in 1975, so it didn’t make my radar. But there were other ways I might have heard of it, but just didn’t. For example, two movie versions came out, the second one a Disney release in 2002. And it was adapted into a play shortly thereafter; it hasn’t hit Broadway yet, but is making appearances in major US cities nonetheless (upcoming run in Atlanta).

From what I read, the book is still in print and sells well. It has sold over 3.5 million copies in 40 years, and comes in at number 54 on the 2013 children’s book sales list for titles older than one year (the “backlist”), with 136,373 copies sold. (The old classic “Goodnight Moon” only beats it by a little at number 51). So, a lot of parents want their kids to read about the Tuck Family and learn that maybe they don’t want to live forever.

I guess that this bodes well with the growing trend against religious practice and belief amongst white well-educated families. When I was a kid, I got the old-time religion answer. That is, just like the last dog and parakeet we had, and those hampsters too, you’re going to die someday – along with everyone one else. But don’t freak out because so long as you go to church and pray, God will give you a new life in a better place, which they call “Heaven”. And we will all meet up and be together again once that happens. I bought into that line, and the idea of death didn’t bother me too much thereafter. More pets bit the dust, followed by grandparents and eventually uncles and aunts. But I took the funeral wakes and burials mostly in stride. Goodbye for now, see you again later on.

But kids don’t get that thought anymore. Instead they get the Tuck story, saying that even if we could all be together again like the Tuck family, we’d all be miserable with it. And not just miserable for a few days, but for an entire ETERNITY. So get used to it — once you’re gone, you’re gone. Enjoy the time and company you have right now, cause it ain’t gonna last. And really, it shouldn’t. (Hmmm, I hear pretty much the same thing most every Sunday from my Zen sangha).

Yea, but . . . something in side of me still doesn’t like that answer. I can’t say for sure one way or another whether there is or isn’t actually an eternal afterlife. There aren’t any hard scientific facts supporting its existence, but there aren’t any good solid facts that preclude it either (especially under the new information-based ontological paradigms about reality, which are now being discussed). But regardless of its veracity, there is something of an existential negativity behind the Tuck viewpoint. Basically, it says that life and being alive has its limits. Life is no doubt interesting when you are young and you grow, when new things happen, when you dig deeper, when you make progress in one way or another. What if all such change ultimately comes to a halt (or becomes some sort of eternally repeating loop like those clever-at-first GIF avatars that you quickly get sick of)?

Well then, we get something like what Bill Murray went thru in the movie “Groundhog Day”. Everything gets boring and frustrating; nothing new happens. I believe that’s the assumption behind Tuck Everlasting. Life will get stale at some point, as there’s not enough in the universe to keep any one person entertained for an eternity.

But if there were somehow the possibility of an eternity of change and novelty paired together with the granting of an eternal time horizon, then hey, it might not be so bad. It might be interesting after all. An eternity of real living . . . so long as there were also real relationships. Part of Bill Murray’s problem was that the relationship he wanted to start with Andie MacDowell was also stuck in the Groundhog Day loop. We’d like our relationships to move, to change, hopefully to deepen and get better (but sometimes they go the other way, alas). And given the many problems and imperfections with relationships, I can’t see how ultimate perfection could ever be attained, even if time were everlasting. But they could get better and better (i.e. approach perfection “asymptotically”).

Natalie Babbitt seems to express a deep but subtle pessimism in Tuck Everlasting, one that she charmingly shares with her young readers. I don’t buy into it. At the most fundamental level, quantum physics guarantees that change is everlasting. As to whether such change allows eternal novelty or ultimately involves eternal return, I can’t say for sure; but if I had to bet, I’d go with the former. To some degree, quantum physics involves fixed, mosaic-like entities (which would impose a limit to the number of novel manifestations that the universe can exhibit); but in other ways, it involves analog variables, which can vary in an eternal fashion. Scientific American ran an article in 2007 arguing that despite the mosaic nature of quantum physics, “the physical world is actually continuous—more analog than digital”. Also, If the cosmic theory of a multiverse driven by eternal chaotic inflation is correct, then certainly the multiverse would be eternally growing and changing. So, I don’t think that boredom would turn an eternal life into a repetitious Groundhog Day-like hell. So long as there were change, and so long as there were someone to share it with, I think that eternal life would be just swell.

I said above that Tuck Everlasting and it’s embrace of ultimate demise is probably favored by atheists. But then again, a self-proclaimed atheist gave one of the most charming answers to a discussion question on Goodreads, i.e. would you drink Tuck’s springwater? A contributor know as PlumJo said

I’d love to live forever! To be able to go everywhere and see everything, learn everything, and see how humanity and technology grows and changes . . . Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist and imagine post-death to be a whole lot of nothing, but no. I don’t ever want to die. I’d drink the water by the gallon. Life is far too interesting and way too much fun to ever want to let it go.

So, you atheists do enjoy life after all !! Well, get used to it . . . there ain’t any such water here in this universe, and despite being interesting and fun, life as we know it will come to an end. As to whether there could be a second act that could be just as interesting and fun — well, no religion can truly promise that. But the better ones can offer grounds for hope, a place to see the glass as half-full. Given that such hope will never result in disappointment (because we’d have to be alive to be disappointed, but the only way to be disappointed would require being completely dead), I think that I will stand with it. In a way, such faith and hope in an eternal afterlife is somewhat like Pascal’s Wager . . . hey, what do you have to lose (other than that smug sense of psychological superiority that some atheists like to convey)?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:33 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m not sure where to start; that’s been happening a lot lately with my comments. So, this will likely be more in the form of random tho’ts about wanting to live forever – or not.

    One thing I *do* know: Living forever is not for me. For starters, I’ve already started to “relive” (if one can put it that way) some pretty difficult things I’ve been thru in life. Reliving it all with another, different person is just as difficult, and maybe more so, the 2nd time than it was the 1st. It seems that most people think in terms of how boring even the pleasant things might be in a life that goes on forever. I’ve started to find out that it’s more the painful things in life that can be a real burden a second time around.

    It also seems to me that those who profess atheism in their lives seem to think that dying would be a “whole lot of nothing” – as in nothing to do. But it seems to me that they have a misguided idea of *nothing*. Is it not a contradiction in terms to think in terms of “a whole lot of nothing” (to do)? Nothing is nothing, everything ends and that’s it; even the concept of “no existence” is something. Therefore, nothing is more like a concept of which we cannot conceive. And just asking here: I wonder if those who think of an “atheistic death” (if I can put it that way) would be even interested in it if they got the *real* concept of *nothing*, instead of a “whole lot of nothing” – as in some boring place with nothing to do? Maybe what they want is a “rest” from the burdens of life. Might they run from their atheistic concept with all their might if they considered “nothing”? (Just asking.) On a tangential note: I remember one time in a very early philosophy class I had back in the 1950s, the teacher gave us a homework assignment: “think about ‘nothing’”. I did just that for the homework and found that thru my life I’ve often returned to that inability to really grasp the concept of “nothing”.

    I find *your* concept of an eternity of “real relationships” a good one and more likely on the mark. But I can also see that one could really need a “rest” from relationships at times. At times one can become seriously frustrated with, disappointed in, and disillusioned with someone truly and deeply loved; the same goes for myself in relationship to others – I’m sure I disappoint, frustrate, and disillusion the people who love me. So, an eternity of “real relationships”? Maybe, but I think I’d put a “rest” section in that kind of eternity – as in taking time out for a “rest” from relationships now and then before getting back to them.

    Perhaps the view of the life after death differs for each person. Perhaps the person *gets* what he/she *thinks* will be what occurs after death. So, if an atheist thinks that there will be nothing, that’s what the individual may get – a “real” nothing (another contradiction in terms). And then maybe if the person thinks atheism means a “whole lot of nothing to do”, that may just be what he/she will get.

    Someone who thinks in terms of “heaven” and sitting gazing at God forever may get just that. (I personally would find that kind of “heaven” boring; but others may not.) You name what the individual thinks, maybe that’s what “after death” will be. After all, even in this life we have some possibility that what a person thinks will be often comes to be, e.g., the placebo effect, which is a very powerful “thing” and not given enough appreciation as far as I’m concerned. So who knows what effect what one *thinks* “after death” will have on what “after death” actually turns out to be. (Bad sentence, but I can’t figure out how to rewrite it right now.)

    Then again, perhaps initially we get what we think we will get – for a while, however long “a while” lasts in a place where there is no time. Perhaps after a while, we come to find out that life after death is beyond anything we can conceive here on earth. How interesting!

    I’m getting to the point in life where I’m beginning to wonder why I’m still around and all the young people (and here I refer to those in their 60s and 70s) are dying; I find myself thinking a lot of about death.

    I find my tho’ts tend to be somewhat like my tho’ts were just preceding a few of the big changes in life I’ve had . . . moving away from home the first time, working at a new profession for the first time, getting married for the first time. Before all the big changes in life, when I was in the period of anticipation, I found it all to be a sense of simple, yet complex, “wonder”, as in: “I deeply wonder what it will be like.”

    Death will certainly be a big change and a “new thing” in my life, if that makes sense. I personally consider I’ve lived before this life, am living this life now, and death in this life will bring me back to that interesting “life after life”. If it turns out the atheists are right and there is “nothing”, then that’s the end. (And here I must confess I often think there’s an *element* of rightness in atheism: After this physical person who is Mary is dead, she no longer will be at all; she will end; a kind of real “nothing” – not the “nothing to do” atheism). *Yet* I personally consider that the part that’s the “internal” Mary will continue, and at this juncture atheists and I diverge.)

    There will be a new, different, interesting life to savor on a different level of life. If I get what I *think* life after death is, I don’t think I’ll be too unhappy; I think I’ll be really happy.

    You’ve given me a tho’t I never considered, the concept of working on “real relationships” . . . altho I must confess, likely what we in this life consider a “real” relationship may not be what a “real” relationship may be in the next life. However, it turns out, I find myself “wondering” with anticipation about the next life. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 17, 2015 @ 3:29 pm

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