On depictions of immortality in media

With the primary exception of religious notions of an afterlife, we as a species - or at least as a culture - tend to depict immortality in a negative light, from vampires to superheroes to even heaven itself in recent TV shows like The Good Place. If being immortal is not downright cursed (see: vampires), then it is at best a lonely or unfulfilling aspect of existence. The heroes in The Old Guard have a weary, insular, and lonely life. Even in the amusingly bureaucratic afterlife of The Good Place, the infinite existence of heaven is depicted as numbing, deadening, even stupefying, and the ability to truly end one’s life comes as a revelation and relief for many.

While I recognize the possible validity of these ideas - that actually being immortal would have some downsides - I think there is a lot of exaggeration of these concerns. More importantly, I don’t accept as a given that the impermanence of life is what gives it meaning. I think it is presumptuous at best for us to have such firm convictions about a state of being we cannot experience. True, humans evolved as mortal beings, that is all we have ever known and can know (as far as we, er, know), so the idea that we might simply be unable to handle immortality, or that it would feel unnatural, is not entirely unreasonable. But it also doesn’t seem to be the only or even most likely possibility.

Now certainly there would be “problems” of being immortal (just as there most certainly are being mortal!), for example there is no doubt in my mind that a human brain could not hold a million years worth of memories. But that’s OK! We already forget a lot of our lives anyway, and it doesn’t make them not worth continuing to live. And what about the often-raised issue of outliving your spouses, friends, etc? Well, most of us experience those kinds of losses in our lives anyway (I just lost a friend recently, and I’m only in my 40s!), and we tend to get through it OK. If anything I would think you’d get better at processing it the more you experienced it and become a more mature, wise person through it (and many other life experiences).

It’s definitely a different experience and way of relating to life, instead of “'til death do you part” it’s more like a series of different lives you lead, with different important people in your life. But that’s little different from anyone who has had multiple long-term relationships in their lives, but ultimately breaks up, or sees their significant other pass away. The opportunity to try again, to lose someone deeply important to you but to have the ability to find others rather than resigning yourself to loneliness, that to me actually seems far more comforting and plausible. Rather than immortality making us lose hope and zest for life, I think it would actually give us far more freedom and energy to explore it.

So in that light, I do think that the typical negative depictions really seem almost desperate to make immortality look bad sometimes. To think that you would get bored of existence, when every one of us no doubt happily experiences and then re-experiences joyful things, seems unreasonable on the face of it. With so many people leaving their lives with a million things not done, not tried, and the prevalence of the “bucket list” (most of which probably don’t get finished), surely having more time - all the time - to try those things at least stands a good chance of being better than the alternative. And yet… it is very rare to see a positive depiction of immortality. Why?

It seems quite likely to me that the prevalence of such negative views of immortality stems more from our own insecurity and existential dread than from actual intrinsic challenges of immortality and a life that does not end. We ourselves must inevitably confront mortality at some point, and that is an uncomfortable reality for most. Making the alternative (immortality) look bad is no doubt some kind of comfort to many. Trying to justify the seeming senselessness of our deaths by suggesting that our lives would be empty without it seems quite questionable to me without serious justification, and since we can’t actually test it, it’s hard to say that any such justifications would be right. They are generally only thought experiments or assumptions.

Now I’m not arguing that believing mortality brings meaning to life is bad. It is, after all, our inescapable state of being (for now). I’m just saying that I think it should be a conviction that is “lightly held”, and that we would do well to be aware of the psychological roots of how we write immortal characters and why. And maybe, just maybe, we should have some more positive or at least open minded explorations of immortal characters’ lives. I know there are some, so let me know your favorites in the comments!