Death and the Finiteness of Infinity
“Suppose that people live forever. Strangely, the population of each city splits in two: the Laters and the Nows. The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at the university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. For all these things, there is an infinite span of time. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait…”
“…With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, greatgreat-aunts, and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…”
“…For no new enterprise is new. All things have been attempted by some antecedent in the family tree. Indeed, all things have been accomplished. But at a price. For in such a world, the multiplication of achievements is partly divided by the diminishment of ambition. And when a daughter wants guidance from her mother, she cannot get it undiluted. Her mother must ask her mother, who must ask her mother, and so on forever. Just as sons and daughters cannot make decisions themselves, they cannot turn to parents for confident advice. Parents are not the source of certainty. There are one million sources. Where every action must be verified one million times, life is tentative. Bridges thrust halfway over rivers and then abruptly stop. Buildings rise nine stories high but have no roofs…”
“…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free. Over time, some have determined that the only way to live is to die. In death, a man or a woman is free of the weight of the past. These few souls, with their dear relatives looking on, dive into Lake Constance or hurl themselves from Monte Lema, ending their infinite lives. In this way, the finite has conquered the infinite…”
Extracts from Einstein’s Dreams (1992) by Alan Lightman, Chapter 9 June 1905
Some of the greatest articles I have encountered in life are often ones related to mortality.
It was two years ago when I first experienced the loss of a loved one. My grandmother passed away and was to be cremated. I visited her one last time to say goodbye as she now rested peacefully in a casket. I didn’t know why but I couldn’t stop crying as I bid her farewell. There was something more than sadness in those tears.
Scenes of that day would continuously come back to me as I ponder upon my own death and that of people around me. Death feels a lot more realistic now. Since I was a kid death had always been like an obscure unopened doorway. From time to time I would try to peek into it as I mulled over the strangeness of mortality and the abstract notion of a life coming to an end. It certainly didn’t quite have the level of realism in it as it has now.
One does not have to be reminded the transience of human life on a cosmic scale to appreciate how short life is. The finiteness of life is something to feel melancholy about as much as to be thrilled for.
The present and this whole notion of being can feel like infinity, ad interim, when one takes a step back and diverts all consciousness unto the unique conscious experience of being at this very moment, the act of which is often referred to as practicing mindfulness. It is the surrealistic feeling that at this fleeting moment in time your existence is itself infinite and without bound as much as it is the only thing that composes the subjective reality for it is the subjective reality per se. It feels as if you have existed indefinitely and always, and yet this whole existence of yours, no matter how infinite it may feel, is bounded and constrained into itself like a line of finite length on a two-dimensional surface containing infinitely many points.
● ● ●
There are infinitely many thoughts that can be conceived the same way there are infinitely many integers mathematically. There are infinitely many different compositions of feelings that can be felt. Infinitely many ways the present can be experienced. The mind is a finite encapsulation of infinity in the same manner that an algorithm compresses an infinite set into a string of finite length.
This is why I love to explore the unknown. Death is the ultimate mystery, and before that is to come, I would like to travel around the world and visit unknown places and set foot on strange terrains and investigate strange things and do strange start-ups and meet strange people and solve strange puzzles. Constantly taking glimpses into infinite within the finiteness of time.
I hope this year will be an even stranger one. Happy birthday, old sport.