Why do we have to die?

Maria Isabel Garcia
Could 'death' now be a box that you tick or not tick when you are born?

Film writer and director Woody Allen had been quoted as saying, “I am not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when that happens.” Most, if not all of us, would probably wish death were optional – like a passport that you don’t have to get if you don’t want to go out of the country. But our pacts with death naturally came when life recruited us. And each of us would, in our own time, make good on that pact.  

“Death” is when the most basic processes that keep your body alive are no longer performing their roles. This means that your cells, which make up your body, are no longer able to keep you alive. And when that happens, “out-of-body” also means out-of-life. That is not an opinion but a fact. That is why they give out death certificates. Unless you fake your own death, when you die, there are unimpeachable markers for it. You get certified as such and your living kin do not go around telling everyone that it was just an opinion back then to declare you “dead” but that you are really somewhere else and can be reached by email.

“Life” – it is this one spectacularly profound beauty of a mess or mess of a beauty that we negotiate with each single breath that we take. It pierces our bodies with the arrow of time, not so much as a straight bow, but more like a clothesline with a lifetime worth of garments that you have worn, outgrown, resewn, stained, torn, refashioned and that finally, at death, you are handing down.

Being alive is such a habit-forming enterprise. It offers a myriad of pleasurable rewards that could be addicting as well. And if you get to live for decades, you can even have the luxury of looking back and realizing (or justifying) that even your darkest moments served a purpose. The problem with life is that we get so used to being alive that there does not seem to be an ideal time to surrender to its end. In fact, just thinking about our own death or the death of someone who matters to us could shake you to your core and take some time off from your own life.

With what we know now about the universe, the Earth, other life forms, and our own bodies compared to even just 200 years ago, do we now have good reason to think that “death” could be divorced from life? Could “death” now be a box that you tick or not tick when you are born?

A recent study on the inevitability of aging and death modelled the cellular dance and found some built-in features that could explain why life comes with death. I spent my All Souls’ Day holiday reading it, understanding why nature’s vocabulary for many-celled creatures like us does not include “non-death.”

This is what I found out. The minute we are conceived, our cells start dividing, blossoming to the different body parts that we have. Throughout our lives, our cells continue to divide. Our cells cooperate, some give, some take, in order to keep our physical selves together. This is why we do not splinter into groups of cells from one minute to the next. This is also how damaged cells caused by disease or environmental damage are dispensed with and how we renew our bodies. But it is not a perfect dainty process. In fact, this very process – this lively dance of cells – is doomed for death not just one way but two.

One way is that once our cells divide, the molecular clock commences. The stopwatch starts and the race begins. There are bound to be mistakes when cells divide. The longer they are allowed to divide (i.e., the older you are), the more chances for mistakes. These “mistakes” are the ones that manifest themselves as “illnesses”.

Time’s stamp is inside the cells as they divide. Our cells, left to themselves, do not forget how long they have been doing this inside you. So yes, they will keep on dividing and you could be lucky to so far survive the mistakes that your cells have made but the division will eventually slow down, guided by its own inner clock. Eventually it will stop. And your life will stop.

But if you are banking on having cells that are so full of vitality that they will keep on dividing, then yes, your cells will not grow old but they will be cancer cells. Cancer cells are those cells that have lost their inner clocks and will proliferate in your body without a program about keeping you together. Those cells just care about themselves and making more of them.

So yes, the very thing that keeps you alive is also the thing that naturally dots the end of your life’s sentence. But the good news about knowing this is we realize that death is not a problem to worry about because it is the other face of your birth door. It is pointless and futile to worry about something that you cannot control. Death will happen to each of us, eventually.

A belief in the after-life, regardless of whatever religion you subscribe to, is a belief that sustains the living. If you doubt this, just look at all the rituals and grand mausoleums people put up for their loved ones who have passed on. Those tombstones could be located with a GPS – they have addresses here. They exist for the eyes and consolation of the living. There is no evidence that the deceased have benefited from those grand mausoleums or from our rituals. For many, a belief in the after-life makes their lives meaningful and worth exploring even if their lives will definitely end. But no one dead has yet come back to confirm the existence or the value of a life after the grand finale.

So we focus on our own lives – the only one we know of now. We cannot bend time’s arrow but we can multiply the arrows that we ride. We can, with as much love as we can muster, crisscross places, adventures, cultures, friendships and mine the darn golden juice out of life till we run out of breath. After all, we live for years but we die for only a moment – unless you have stopped living your own life long before breathing your last. By living with scale-breaking tonnage of passion and meaning, we can defeat the grand old inner clock with the very weight of our own lives. – Rappler.com

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