Who would have a death wish?
Stuntmen, firefighters, and perhaps some customer service representatives (like the guy I was on the phone with for an hour yesterday) seem to toy with danger. But they do not really want to die by doing these things.
And yet, before the end of this article, I am going to make it clear that certain attitudes we all share about perfection mean that we share, at times, a death wish.
Live Long and Prosper
Let us start by considering that many people are downright terrified of death.
Transhumanists, for example, are those who want to use new technologies to extend the lifetimes of people for as long as possible. Among the things they advocate are computer programming (transferring our minds into computerized robots), cryogenics (freezing a body like they did to Han Solo in the Star Wars movies), and genetic enhancement (altering DNA so cells never self-destruct).
Transhumanists want smarter, longer lasting, and more capable beings who are closer to perfection even if it means – especially if it means – somehow changing people so we are not really human anymore.
Live Long and Control Human Nature
In the last U.S. presidential election, the Transhumanist Party candidate, Zoltan Istvan, rode around the country in a self-labeled “Immortality Bus” to highlight his enthusiasm for extending all of our lives. Its construction in the shape of a coffin was just a little confusing!
Obviously there is some kookiness going on within the Transhumanist Party, but you would be wrong to simply write off the transhumanism movement as powerless.
Ray Kurzweil is a well-known transhumanist who promotes the concept of the “Singularity“, that is, the moment when scientific knowledge propels humanity beyond any recognizable existence. He is not only an extremely influential writer and inventor, he was also hired in 2012 by Google as a top engineering leader. Kurzweil claims that eventually humans will live forever and has said in a documentary that “…people are fooling themselves when they say they have accepted death.” In 2013, PBS listed Kurzweil as one of sixteen “revolutionaries who made America,” and Inc. magazine said he was the eighth most fascinating entrepreneur in the U.S.
Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis (of the X Prize Foundation) founded Singularity University in 2008 as a think tank and business incubator, located in the NASA Research Park in California. The University has collaborated with Nokia, Google, Autodesk, LinkedIn, Genentech, Deloitte, CNBC, and many other large corporations as well as NASA and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Not to be outdone, Stanford University has been holding a Singularity Conference since 2006.
Driven to Death
While the transhumanists believe that everyone really wants to live as long as possible, the founder of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, believed that you and I actually have something like a death drive.
We can most easily see the death drive in our desire to be aggressive or destroy things.
The movie Fight Club, in which a group of men get the greatest pleasure out of pummeling each other, is all about this death instinct. So is the prevalence of high school kids tearing each other down in their words and Facebook messaging. So also is the urge to smack the heck out of a baseball with a bat or the fascination with watching an abandoned building get blown up.
We feel the death drive, however, more deeply than just wanting to destroy things.
Unlike our contrary instinct for living, the death drive is not something we can deal with very easily. There is a conflict between wanting to escape or destroy life while also trying our best to live; it is a painful contradiction. We can take our aggression out on someone or something, but that gets us into a lot of trouble. It is not exactly the kind of behavior our friends, coworkers, and police officers like to see.
Freud thought that we give into our death drive mostly by directing our aggression toward ourselves. This is a great irony: it is tough to complain to yourself about something you are doing to yourself.
Death and Perfection
Freud’s ideas are fascinating and often give us a lot of insight into our weird human nature, but he made many mistakes in this theories because he paid little attention to Christian wisdom about human nature. The concept of a death drive is much too pessimistic to capture the truth about humanity’s core dignity.
The “death drive” has more to do with resenting life than it does with wanting death. This is a better way to understand it. Adam and Eve resented being innocent, so they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and damaged their relationship with God, which was the only thing that really mattered. They brought death into the world by foolishly resenting the excellent life they had.
We all resent having to struggle. We resent that we suffer. We resent our limitations in achieving certain things. We resent that we are not perfect. In essence, we want to be gods, just like the transhumanists do.
Not being able to reach perfection makes us angry, so we take that destructive impulse and act aggressively toward others. We also turn that anger on ourselves. That is a terrible part of the death drive.
Trying to be perfect – and failing – also makes us despair. Then we hate our lives because we have limits to what we can do. And that makes us try all the harder to be perfect!
It is a never-ending cycle. A trap.
We Set the Direction of Perfection
Okay, is this getting confusing? There is a point to all this!
Whatever perfection is, it is based on some very specific picture of perfection in your head. Nobody else has that same picture. Go ahead, test it: find a friend and try to explain to him or her what a perfectly beautiful person looks like. Even if you are able to describe it in some partial (imperfect) way, I am certain that your friend will have a different vision of perfect beauty.
But now it is time to face the facts: there is not, nor has there ever been, anything like a perfectly beautiful person. That is because human perfection is not a real possibility, no matter what we try to do to make it one.
Perfection is a fantasy because it can never exist outside of your head. It is your idea alone, not a reality shared by anyone or anything in the true and objective world that goes beyond you.
Perfection is also a fantasy because it is a point in infinity: you can always be more beautiful, more intelligent, more anything. Perfect beauty is the same as infinite beauty – and infinity does not exist in the finite world. Nobody has ever seen or measured anything that is infinite.
Get Out of the Trap
Finally! Here is the point of the article: our drive to perfection is the same as a drive to death.
Trying to be perfect is a trap that lands us in despair.
We resent our imperfection; we try harder to be more perfect; we resent our lives because they subject us to imperfection and imperfect conditions; we turn our aggression against ourselves by saying nasty things in our heads and sabotaging our own efforts; and then we try to be more perfect to compensate!
I am getting exhausted and angry just thinking about it!
Wanting perfection is wanting despair, resentment, and the loss of reality. That is death. But there is a way out. What follows are the steps to take out of this trap, whether you are a transhumanist or a normal person.
First step: Recognize that perfection is not even a reality. It is not only impossible for you and me to be perfect. It is impossible for perfection in any form, along any imagined scale, to exist in reality.
Step two: Choose to live in the real world. Stop chasing the fantasy.
Step three: Stop making yourself miserable because you are not and could never be, nor ever want to be, perfect. That is because perfection is not real, but you are! You would not be real if you were defined as being perfect. You would be effectively dead.
Final step: Enjoy the freedom of just being you, a real and glorious human being who is a child of God.
Let’s let God be God. And let’s be happy that we are who and what we are.
It is all good. It is all created by our God. We are given, and we are real.
In essence, we are alive! So live your life joyfully.