The older I get, the more reasons I get to think about death. Not the most productive activity, but you know how it works.
And the more I think about death, the more its existence annoys me. Not a huge fan of death - and that's putting it mildly.
This is my attempt to articulate why I feel about mortality the way I do.
The end of history
I loved jigsaw puzzles as a kid. The biggest one I ever solved was a massive 2000-piece Ravensburger’s Castle Neuschwanstein. Took me an eternity of excitement and frustration until one day I finally finished it, glued it to a piece of cardboard, and proudly hung it on the wall. It was all worth it.
That puzzle is now history, a thing of the past. But the past always fascinated me. The events, cultures, people, places. Nature. Dinosaurs! Evolution. The universe! What did the world look like millions, thousands, hundreds of years ago? What were people like back then? How did they live? Think? Feel? How did they explore their world and invent the future we all live in today?
And aren’t you curious about our future? What will the world look like a decade, century, millennium from now? A million years from now? Flying cars? (Probably not.) Mars colonies? (Maybe.) Will we live in a world of abundance, brain-computer interfaces, intergalactic travel, or will we disappear altogether? Is our future more like hell on earth, or like peace among worlds? I NEED to know!
The past is a puzzle of a billion pieces, but the puzzle of the future is infinite. It’s a puzzle that keeps expanding. It will keep expanding after I die. The kids of the future will be the ones getting excited and frustrated about it. Not me. My playtime ends. Please, mom - just one more century! I promise I’ll do my homework by 2150.
Death is my personal end of history. Ain’t that fucking annoying?
Annoying in the now
It’s not just about history. If you haven't caught it yet, I'm a little curious. About a lot of things. Life isn’t always fun, but it always has the potential to be exciting.. Sure, there are obligations. Bills to pay, people to care for, problems to deal with. But I can balance these things, right? Right?
Kinda. I’m aging. Running out of time. So, I can’t spend a few decades pursuing a career in anthropology and paleontology, then take a decade off to indulge in pure and unadulterated hedonism before turning to theoretical physics and space engineering studies to become a Mars explorer. I don’t have that many optimal decades left. Mortality makes it harder to do things out of pure curiosity. It makes it harder to keep exploring. Death forces us to make wise decisions.
But it also makes wise decisions dubious. Is it a wise decision to spend a decade or two grinding in management consulting on your way to financial independence in the future? There might be no future. There might be no tomorrow. The best time is now and nothing is guaranteed in life except the eventual death, eventual being a pretty loose timeframe.
Death forces us to compromise. To optimize for living a good life, not living the best life. To choose a handful from an infinite number of possibilities, and stick to them hoping for the best. And we’re not great at making choices. People spend their lives focusing on the future only to die wishing they had lived in the now.
Death is annoying in the now. It limits our possibilities, impedes exploration, stifles discovery. Death doesn’t make life precious, just less exciting than it would have otherwise been. It’s the end of the infinite game.
Carpe diem, memento mori, tempus fugit
Up until I turned 25, I felt like I had all the time in the world. Achieving all of my dreams and then some wasn’t a question of if, but when. I lived and did whatever felt right in the moment by default, and I knew I’d get there eventually.
Different things felt right at different moments. Learning. Gaming. Friends. Spending months pursuing dumb business ideas, failing miserably, rinsing, repeating. Wasting time. Wasting more time, struggling with depression, learning to explore the world around me. Trying diving, skydiving, going bankrupt, bouncing back. Not exactly wise decisions, but I kept figuring things out. I knew I’d get there given enough time. And I had all the time.
I was 25 when death first paid a quick visit to take my beloved Persian cat Busya. Yeah, pets go to live on a farm all the time, whatever. But this was different. I was 12 when we got her as a kitten. We grew up together. And she didn’t die peacefully in her sleep and wasn’t flattened by a car, but at least it was quick. It wasn’t quick, and I dragged her through multiple cancer surgeries because I didn’t know better and wanted to help. And I couldn’t help.
A few years later, my grandpa Žanis died of cancer unexpectedly at 76. One week chipper, the next week bed-ridden, the next week dead. Nothing anyone could do. Peaceful in their sleep my ass. Fuck cancer. At least it was quick. Thanks so much, death. Really appreciate it.
A few more years later death got my father Vova (diminutive of Vladimir). He lived separately since I was a kid and we weren’t too close, but we had met occasionally. His final years were sad, lonely, and desperate, and there was nothing I could do to help, again.
This year, just a few weeks ago, a friend of a few of my good friends, a guy I’ve known since high school, died in his early 30s.
The passage of time makes death a regular guest. Hey there, thanks for dropping by. Make yourself at home. How’s life?
At 25, I lost the feeling of having all the time in the world. Time suddenly became finite. I felt the urgency to get things done before I die, and this feeling never went away. And I don’t like it. Yes, it helps get some stuff done faster, but it doesn’t make my life better. It’s just like deadlines. Deadlines are great for accountability, but they’re stressful. The urgency to live is stressful.
And I’ll never get all of my things done, anyway. As much as I hate the idea of dying with unfinished business, I hate the idea of having to start wrapping things up and getting ready to die even more. It just feels like giving up too soon. I assume there’s a happy medium. Like having a contingency plan so your unfinished business doesn’t become a burden for those left behind, but then to just keep living.
People who keep living until the very end inspire me. And it can mean many things, not just skydiving, running marathons, attending shareholder meetings, and building houses well into your 90s and 100s. It’s about staying sharp. Staying alive. Enjoying life. It makes me sad to see people give up on life for no reason other than the number of years they’ve lived on this planet and then go on to live decades in a perpetual state of feeling too old for anything and getting ready to die.
Still, sometimes the sense of urgency to live is overwhelming. When it gets too bad, I try to let it go altogether, and live a few days as if nothing mattered at all. Forget time. Forget money. Forget aging. Forgetto mori. Just live.
Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today. - James Dean
This is (not) fine
We've been trying to rationalize death for millennia, and yet we're still not comfortable around it. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that death is a natural and peaceful occurrence and the ultimate source of meaning in life, we still suck at dealing with it.
(And by we I mostly mean the Christian culture I grew up around. I'm aware other cultures exist. I'm also aware I'm writing this from the safety and comfort of my own apartment, while unspeakable tragedies are happening mere hundreds of miles away in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world.)
We really don’t like talking about it. If we have to, it’s hushed tones, flowery euphemisms, and a general feeling of uncomfortableness. Passed on, gone to a better place, ascended to heaven, passed into glory. Nah, he died. Stopped existing. Is no more! Ceased to be! Want to accept death as a natural phenomenon? Start by normalizing direct language, it makes coping easier.
And we really don't like it happening to those around us. Whenever death is actually a better outcome for someone, we’re like nah! Suicide is frowned upon, if not considered a sin. Legal euthanasia is still a rare concept. Families fight "do not resuscitate" orders to keep their loved ones technically alive against common sense. We force people to suffer to feel better about ourselves. Doesn't sound natural to me.
And when it does happen, we mourn. So. Much. Mourning. I grew up around Orthodox Christians, and their funerals always terrified me. People clad in black. Everyone somber and crying. Open casket viewing. The dreary hymns and prayers. An incredibly boring formal memorial dinner. At least my family wasn’t religious, otherwise I’d have to endure the additional memorial services on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day. We didn’t observe the 40-day mourning period, either. Thank God!
Still, I hated these kinds of funerals as a kid. Not only were they absolutely depressing, but they didn’t really make sense to me. Didn’t Uncle Whatshisname just ascend to heaven? Go to a better place? Shouldn’t we be happy? It’s even worse when the deceased weren’t religious themselves, but the relatives insist on doing it the right way. It’s about the tradition, not the person. I’m sure Uncle Whathisname would’ve loved to be remembered as a desiccated corpse in a casket surrounded by wailing people. How’s that for a source of meaning.
Yeah, having to die sucks, and losing people you care about sucks more. But literally anything is better than a traditional Christian funeral. If we really believed dying was fine, we'd celebrate the person's life, not mourn them leaving us behind. And by celebrate, I mean really celebrate. Like, throw a festival. So many other cultures do it better. I always thought Tibetan sky burials were totally rad. And Viking burials. And Hunter S. Thompson's ashes being blasted out of a cannon. It's the spirit, not the body.
We’re not fine with death, no matter what we say.
Immortality is good
So, I’d rather not die. We should live forever.
But Martin, wouldn’t it be boring to live forever? For some reason, this question always comes up whenever I talk about immortality. The idea that to live forever would be boring, if not outright torture.
Really? Every second the world exists it creates centuries of opportunities for exploration. A superabundance of possibilities and an infinite amount of time to figure things out. No limit on the number of mistakes you can make. Waste as many decades as you want pursuing all the wrong things, time doesn’t matter. Immortality would mean a truly infinite game.
But it must come with two provisions: autonomy and the ability to quit.
Losing your autonomy sucks. Merely not dying doesn't equal being alive. Prometheus was granted immortality, but there was a catch. Living forever with debilitating pain, illness you can't cure, an aging body you can’t fix, is not great. Staying imprisoned, enslaved, bedridden, locked in, unable to act freely of your own accord for eternity would indeed be torture.
The ability to bail is also crucial. Life isn’t just sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it’s fucking hard. Unbearably hard. I don’t believe in forcing people to stay alive against their own will. The right to die is a good right. We should be allowed to end our life now, and immortality should come with an off switch, too.
We'll probably figure these things out long before we figure out immortality, though. As long as we don’t end up being eternally enslaved by our AI overlords in a singleton scenario of some sort, we should be good. And if we do, well, at least we tried. As Wayne Gretzky used to say, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
If I die, I die
If you were to die tomorrow (next month, next year), how would you live your life?
Dumb question. Never liked it. It assumes you can predict how you're going to act knowing you’re going to die soon. You can’t. We all know we’ll die eventually, and does it help us live better lives? No. We do it despite death, not because of it.
For now, death is part of life. But cancer is also part of life. So is explosive diarrhea. And both are way less deadly now than they were a few decades ago. Smallpox has been part of human life for millennia, and now it basically doesn’t exist. We’ve fixed it. Death is just a worse version of these things. It sucks. We’ll eventually fix it, too.
I’d rather not die. I’m not sure there’s much to look forward to on the other side. I don’t believe in Heaven and Hell, and Heaven sounds kinda boring anyway. Reincarnation is pretty cool but unlikely. Living in Valhalla alongside the great heroes sounds fucking awesome, but they'd never in a million years let me in, I'm not cool enough. What’s left? Nothing. The end of consciousness. Boring.
So I’ll keep looking forward to living forever. Be it full-blown technological singularity the consequences of which we can't even fathom, or something boring like just eradicating all diseases including aging. Or floating in a pod plugged into virtual reality. Or having my consciousness uploaded to the cloud. Anything is better than just dying, which is annoying. At least give me another hundred years for a start. Immortality Plan, Free 100-Year Trial, Click to Subscribe.
But what if I knew for sure I’ll die tomorrow?
If so, I’d try my best to follow my "Easy 3-Step Dying Tomorrow" framework:
Step 1: Get annoyed. And sad. And freak out. Who am I kidding, I’d totally freak out. Hyperventilate. Probably swear a lot. Fly through all stages of grief in like an hour.
Step 2: Execute contingency plan. Share passwords. Say goodbyes. Post on socials. By the way, absolutely no mourning ribbons or monochrome pictures allowed. I’ll haunt anyone posting those for eternity. Happy and colorful pictures only.
Step 3: Embrace it. Lean into it, even. You know how you can reframe anxiety as excitement? It actually helps, I like to use it when skydiving, speaking in front of people, and doing other things outside my comfort zone. Well, dying is totally outside my comfort zone. Annoying, terrifying, but also a journey toward the unknown. A once-in-a-lifetime experience! See, made it sound cool. Almost.
And when I’m done, cremate me, scatter my ashes all over the place, and throw a party. Play games, get drunk, have fun. Don’t mourn my death, celebrate my life.
That’s my framework for the unlikely occasion of having to die tomorrow. (Enter your email and I'll send you a handy and portable PDF version! No spam guarantee.*)
I’d rather not die tomorrow, though. Or ever. So in the meantime, I’ll keep being annoyed by the idea of death and looking forward to immortality. And I’ll keep exploring. Discovering. Playing the infinite game.
Staying curious, staying cool, staying alive.
And then we’ll see.
* Just kidding.**
** I'll totally spam you.