I get up in the morning and I read the obits. If I’m not in them, I have breakfast.
When we’re young, we say “hello” to our friends and share our daily highs and lows. When we’re old(er), we read the obits to say goodbye — and remember.
So recently, before my breakfast, I saw a familiar name in the paper. The wife of a friend had died. After more than 50 years of marriage, there would be no more “Hi honey, I’m home” or “How was your day?” No more conversations, deep or frivolous. No more shared worries about the state of our planet, economy, or children. No more date nights on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and a movie on demand. No more hugs and kisses. No more. No more. Such is the stuff of heart-rending grief.
As it so happens, a few years earlier the same friend described his wife with the following: “She is my heart and soul. She has vastly broadened my world view, changed me for the better, and I am indebted to her in endless ways. Without her, I am nothing.”
The combination of his loss and his tribute got me thinking about the notion of immortality. Carl Reiner hit on one level of immortality: The ability to eat breakfast cheats death for at least for one more day. On the other end of the spectrum, billions of people around the world believe that when their time for breakfast runs out, they will be united for all eternity with their family and friends, and their God, in heaven. Bookends to the notion of immortality. But what else lies on the shelf of our lives between those bookends?
After thinking about it, there are in fact other forms of “immortality” between breakfast and the belief of billions. The pharaohs have their pyramids, Shakespeare his plays, and every family their scrapbooks (or, today, iPhones) filled with hundreds if not thousands of photos of us — full color immortality.
On a more serious note, psychologists debate how much of who we are is due to nature (genetics) or nurture (family, cultural, and environmental factors). While they debate the percentages of those two factors, the real point lies in the continuation (or “immortality”) of their effects.
So I went back to my friend’s tribute to his wife: “She has vastly broadened my world view, changed me for the better.” On the nurture side of the argument, we enter relationships as “blind dates,” looking for commonalities, ways we can connect, future roads we might travel together. After any long-term relationship, each partner has transformed, contributed to, and changed each other in ways both significant and subtle. And those changes endure even after the death of a spouse or friend. We are not human etch-a-sketches instantly reverting to blank slates upon the loss of the artist. In this way, the best traits of the people important to us, the traits that “change us for the better,” are immortal.
On the nature side of the equation, half (more or less) of our children’s DNA is me; the other half, my wife. I look at our grandchildren and realize that the half in each parent is now a quarter in them, and yet to be an eighth in a great-grandchild. Just as I am half of each of my parents and an eighth of each great-grandparent. This genetic “immortality” is something we share only with our immediate family, something of a “seed bank” to continue the lineage of a family.
The quest for immortality is a strictly human pursuit. We search for the fountain of youth, have our bodies frozen to near absolute zero waiting for a cure to the disease that put us on ice, have countless amazing life-extending surgeries, and take billions of dollars of life-extending medications. We resist death at all costs, and continually look forward to a tomorrow. It’s the human condition.
So when someone changes us for the better, changes how we behave because of their influence — be they spouse, child, parent, friend, mentor, or personal hero — do they not live on in that sense? And when we inherit the DNA of our parents, and their parents, and pass that on to our children, and grandchildren, do they, and we, not also live on in that way? After all, without these influences, none of us would be who we are.
“Without her, I am nothing.” No. You were “you” until you met “her” and then the two of you created personalities entwined like two strands of psychological DNA, built around the molecular DNA you each inherited, and which, along with psychological traits, you pass on to your children. Is that not a way in which partners find immortality in other’s lives, and in the lives of all who will follow them?
Mexico’s annual celebration of Die de los Muertos (captured so beautifully in the movie Coco), reminds people to remember their ancestors and to thank them for their lives and contributions. In reality, they live on not for just one day, but every day through the genetic and psychological contributions each of us exhibits every day of the year.
More than breakfast, less than heaven; not as enduring as a pyramid nor as fleeting as a digital photograph. Immortality lies in the play we write with each other with a debt to the past and hope for the future. I am enjoying writing that play and looking forward to fewer goodbyes and a lot more breakfasts.
It’s the human condition.