10 January, 2013

If Humans Had Printed Expiry Dates

This showed up on New Year’s Eve on my Facebook news feed ‘I wish humans were born with printed expiry dates’.  I gave it a thought, and I realized that the one who was wishing so, and those who had ‘liked’ the thought, are not really thinking it through (I really want to write about psychology of Facebook likes, another time, perhaps). So, rather than leaving a passing by ‘lol’, or ‘liking’ it for the uniqueness of the thought, I decided to let the simulation run in my mind. I really like it, when I’m there, my mind palace that is. So, before dozing off that night, I imagined a printed expiry date on my arm, just below my hand (I just felt that it was meant to be there, if it was ever meant to be). Thank you for choosing imaginary airlines, and we wish you a pleasant flight.


And here begins your journey into my mind. Fasten your seat belts, folks, it’s quite busy up here. It’s 3rd May, 1927 (I don’t know why) and a baby is born to a young couple. In the real world (…you know what I mean) the nurse would shout ‘It’s a girlllll’, but in this simulation she says ‘1939’. The young mother holds the baby in her hands, shedding tears ‘why hast thou forsaken me’. ‘Why she has to die before me’, she sobs. No friend or relative congratulates them, and they are already mourning the death yet to happen 12 years later. The birth and death certificate are the same, there’s no need for a separate record, is there?

Random bars on the screen, there seems to be some rational error in the previous simulation. ‘…if you are sitting near an emergency exit…’ (Let’s skip that part). If it was year 1997, and the ultra sound could read the expiry dates, perhaps, that would lead to abortion of the yet-to-be-born (or may be not) poor girl. Abortion rates sky-rocket. The printed expiry date would be compromised, and it would have to be re-interpreted to mean ‘if born, will die on mm-yyy’. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say the printed dates do not contain the day. Don’t ask me if the dates are Gregorian or not, ok? It’s just a simulation.

‘...there seems to be some turbulence…please return to your seats….’. What if the poor girl Mary did get to live? At the age of 11, she is wise enough to read the ‘if born, will die…’ on her hand. She leaves a good bye note in her bedroom: ‘with love, to mom, daddy and Cinderella’ (Of-course, it’s her doll). The parents find their lovely daughter bleeding on the pavement; she had jumped of the 12th floor. Her death certificate has to be re-done, and so has to be our dear simulation. The expiry dates have to include a note ‘not valid in case of suicide’.

How about the slow suicides? If you know that you are going to die in 2054, why not smoke and cross the busy high-way ‘like a boss’ (Meanwhile, this is a non-smoking flight  ...‘…don’t tamper with the smoke detectors…’). Everything will change, from schooling to health-care. Schools will be different for people of different ages, not current age, the ‘over-all age’, if you would like to call it that. Every entry form will have that date. I wonder if girls would hide their over-all age too. Well, I guess that depends (the universally correct answer to almost everything). That’s one mystery settled, ‘they’ will still be a mystery. That’s one hypothetical lesson, from this imaginary simulation: ‘never trust a woman when she tells you her age or over-all age’ (…there is no life-vest under your seat, if you are a woman and would like to skip the rest of the simulation, please turn off your PC or if you are wise enough close this window).

Let’s take one sector at a time, shall we? Let’s begin with health care. Less people would come to medical doctors, for the obvious reason, ‘I’ve got 20 more years to live’. And psychologists and counsellors will be in high demands. The most common complaint would be obsession with thoughts of death. This imaginary disorder would be named ‘death-pression’. Here’s a serious question. If you were to die tomorrow and you were aware, would you feel like doing any routine activity today? The basic needs of food, water, sleep etc. all will seem utterly useless. And what if you knew you were about to die, the next week, the next month or the next year. When will you ever be in your comfort zone? When you have ten more years to live? And even if there were any comfort-period, people would never find any motivation to engage in any-thing long term.

As people would no longer be motivated for personal long-term goals, same sickness would be accumulated to a global level. There would be no long-term plans. No politician would like to enact a plan that he himself would not be able to see-through to the end. Monetary calculations will depend not only on what a person owns, but what he is going to get from the death of his relative next year. Depending on your relative’s death to manage your expenses, seems stone-hearted, but does seem likely in this imaginary scenario.

Cutting things short, every situation I imagined, led to terrifying consequences. So, God has gifted us with this ignorance of not knowing the time of our own demise. Knowing our own death, would cause us to die many a times before we actually do. It would be impossible to find balance in life, if you knew your own time of death. People, who believe in after-life, would find no interest in ‘worldly’ activities what-so-ever, and people who do not believe in after-life, would be left in an entirely apathetic limbo. 

Then I questioned myself. How is that different from the ‘accounted date of death in the register of God’? I battled hard with this thought, and I realized that the accounted date of death comes with variables beyond my comprehension. It is more like a screen showing real-time date of death, that changes according to the actions we take. Knowing that date, myself, would be utterly harmful, but the feeling that God knows the date is comforting. When God’s knowledge of time of death is coupled with His ultimate power, it makes it even more significant. God is the one, without whose command, death cannot come. This gives us bravery and strength to fight for noble causes, and to face death. This belief, if understood correctly, does not disrupt my ability to act and be motivated, by any means. Instead, it gives me comfort, especially when some loved one dies, knowing that ‘it had to happen’. Although, one could augment the variables with this ‘had to happen’ as well, but after a thing has happened, the paths not taken become meaningless. The course of action chosen becomes the meaningful one, and infinite paths not chosen lose their significance.

The uncertainty about our death should create in us an urgency to do noble acts and solve the mysteries of life before it’s too late. For those who do not believe in after-life, they should realize that every clock-tick brings them to something that they consider to be their ‘end’. However, if the religionists claim about afterlife is true, their preparation for that would be near to zero. Hence, being uncertain of how much more time they have, they need to start thinking and start acting now. Similarly, for those who do believe in after-life, they cannot waste a moment to build their future not only in this world but in the after-life. So, ignorance about time of one’s death is definitely a blessing and knowing one’s time of death would lead to numerous destructive consequences. However, we cannot take the impact of these in isolation of one’s beliefs about life and death. For people with belief in after-life, death is just a transition to another kind of life. They would feel motivated to do something for their next life, even if they knew they are going to leave this life tomorrow. This doesn’t stand true for those for whom death is ‘the end’. As Carl Jung has so eloquently put:

“…we cannot know whether anything happens to a person after he is dead? The answer is neither yes nor no. We simply have no definite scientific proofs about it one way or another, and therefore in the same position as when we ask Mars is inhabited or not. And the inhabitants of Mars, if there are any, are certainly not concerned whether affirm or deny their existence. They may exist or not. And that is how it stands with so-called immortality – with which we may shelve the problem.

But here my physician’s conscience awakes and urges me to say a work which is essential to this question. I have observed that a directed life is in general better, richer and healthier than an aimless one, and that it is better to go forwards with the stream time than backwards against it. To the psychotherapist an old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it… As a physician, I am convinced that is hygienic – if I may use the word – to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider the religious teaching of life hereafter consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene. When I live in a house which I know will fall about my head within the next two weeks, all my vital functions will be impaired by this thought, but if on the contrary I feel myself to be safe, I can dwell there in a normal and comfortable way. From the standpoint of psychotherapy it would therefore be desirable to think of death as only a transition – one part of life- process whose extent and duration escape our knowledge.”  (An excerpt from Carl Jung’s book Modern Man in Search of Soul, Routeldge Publications ,2010, pp. 114)

Carl Jung’s selection of words forces me to argue that a ‘belief’ in after-life and ‘seeking-refuge’ in the concept of after-life cannot have similar effects. People would not be motivated to act on something that they don’t firmly believe in. Hence, inserting the thought of after-life into your brain, just to channelize your motivations in this one, will not simply work. For the idea/belief to have a noticeable impact on our lives, it must be firmly rooted. Hence, what is more important is not simply to embrace the idea of after-life because of its by-products but to actually believe in it.

We never really expire the way material things do. That’s why we don’t have expiry dates. Our death is a mere transition to a life of another kind. Death is the end of this life and beginning of another. The real question is not when that transition occurs, but what happens after it occurs. Let’s not waste our life in attempts of relative longevity without any real thoughts about the ultimate question.

John Eccles writes: '' Finally, of course we come to the ultimate picture, what happens in death? Then all cerebral activity ceases permanently. The self-conscious mind that has had an autonomous existence in a finds that the brain it had scanned and probed and controlled so efficiently and effectively through a long life is no longer giving any message at all. What happens then is the ultimate question '' (Karl Popper and John Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, London: Routledge Publishers, 1990, pp.372)

(Ladies and Gentleman, we have journeyed through an altered simulated state of consciousness back to real life. I hope you enjoyed this journey. Thank you for choosing imaginary airways. )

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Amreen Khalid Shaikh said...

Woohooo an awesome journey it was :)

Muhammad Awais Tahir said...

Glad that you enjoyed it, thanks

Amina Obaid Khawaja said...

Superb article!!! Very ingeniously written. Extremely creative. and point well delivered. I relished everoly bit of it (being a thanatologist)

Amina Obaid Khawaja said...

except for one part which made me uncomfortable (abt the 11 yr old). i just cannot tolerate the thought of kids dying, although it was 'simulation'

Muhammad Awais Tahir said...

Glad that a thanatologist enjoyed the write-up. Thanks for your appreciation.

Sayful alam said...

Love it!!!!!!! You are brilliant mate!

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