Most writing is the scratching of an insatiable itch for immortality. Alas, the more written, the greater the itch.
Since reading Dee’s most recent work, Autobiography of a Restless Mind, I have been pondering the human desire for immortality, and wondering if, perhaps, we understand immortality inaccurately.
2.2 million books were published last year. As of this writing, 152 million blogs pepper the Internet. Two are added every second…63 million per year. WordPress, one of many blogging sites, documents 2 million posts every day. And these figures ignore journals, periodicals, newspapers and editorials.
If Dee is correct, the itch for immortality is indeed insatiable and growing at an unprecedented rate.
It would be convenient to claim I am unmotivated by Dee’s itch, but it would be disingenuous. Who amongst us, when mortality tugs at our coattails, can make an honest claim to nary a qualm? Has it always been so?
The period from 800 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E., often referred to as the Axial Age, was a time of great change. Prior to the Axial Age it was impossible to imagine individuals separate from their tribe. With no stored wealth, and each day’s survival in question, the effort of every member was essential. If the tribe was to survive, each person’s gifts and capacities had to be discovered, honored and engaged. Every person mattered.
With the advent of the Axial Age, cities emerged and wealth accumulated. Families and individuals could, for the first time, survive independent of the tribe. Wealth lubricated, if you will, families from many of the day-to-day terrors that made the lives of their ancestors so precarious. But with life becoming safer and a tad easier, individuals and their unique gifts became less important for survival. Perhaps for the first time in our history, individuals might have begun to wonder if they were necessary.
The Axial Age was also an astounding time in the development of human wisdom. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for much of the West’s rational, scientific views. The Buddha proposed his ideas for reincarnation, and an end to human suffering through non-attachment. Jainism gave us the principles of non-violence, karma and asceticism. The Upanishads, the Tao, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita were written during this period. Confucius, Archimedes, Elijah and Isaiah are also considered to be of this age.
Is it coincidence that, facing the possibility this life might be meaningless, desires for immortality emerged, and definitions and descriptions flourished? For Buddhists, immortality was realized by reincarnation through many lives, eventually reaching an unending state of Nirvana. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) found comfort in a single life with a heavenly destination in which we could spend eternity in bliss reunited with our maker. The Greeks found a form of immortality through thumos, recognition and fame that would secure a person’s place on the lips and in the hearts of future generations.
If there is any veracity to the claim that riches and an easy life can make self-worth elusive, our craving for immortality is exacerbated by our unimaginable collective wealth, and our belief that medicine, science and technology will make life safer, easier and perhaps even everlasting. It’s paradoxical I admit, but, as life becomes safer and easier, could it mean that each of us matters even less? And if so, might the quest for life’s meaning become excruciatingly difficult, elusive and painful?
I know this: I talk to many people for whom life has become unbearable for one simple reason—their life has no meaning. They have given up the search for the gifts that make them unique and magnificent. The tribe no longer needs them.
So I wonder. Is it possible the only immortality—unending existence—that truly matters, is in discovering our gifts and being fully exhausted of them by life’s end…knowing they have been given in service to the human tribe. Perhaps immortality and humility emerge from gently etching our irreplaceable footprint on the human journey as the tribe searches for a sustainable path into the future.
Note: The following is being published this week in the March issue of Batavia Business, the monthly publication of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.
When I began these words, I would have thought that being human and being inhuman were opposites and mutually exclusive. But now I wonder.
The spectrum of words that define “inhuman” range widely. At the brutal end are words like barbarism. At the softer end, even “lacking kindness, pity, or compassion” are invited to this party.
Steve Jobs, was a creative genius, and he could ignite fire in those around him. And yet, his ability to frighten, intimidate and reduce others to tears is legendary.
Was this brutal side an integral part of his success? If someone had found a way to polish Jobs’ rough edges—soften his abrupt, angry, impatient manner—might Apple have succumbed to one of its near-death incidents? After Lisa (a commercial failure in the 1980s), might Macintosh have remained only a variety of apple you eat. Might iPod, iPhone and iPad never have seen the light of iDay?
Was Jobs’ willingness to reduce others to rubble what ensured the innovations that made it to his office were more refined, more dramatic and more creative than they would have been if he treated product developers and researchers with kindness, pity and compassion? Did those invited to his office, knowing their careers could be made or broken by Jobs’ quixotic reaction, work harder, refine further, create more before daring to walk under the transom to his office?
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were organized under the attentive, uncompromising, often critical eye of Peter Ueberroth. Those Games were to become the first privately financed Games and resulted in a of $250 million surplus that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games eight years earlier, which left that city burdened with debt for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.
I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20th century. Similar to Steve, Dee was a visionary and innovator. Visa—or BankAmericard when first formed—saved the credit card industry from turmoil and eventual ruin with Dee’s radical view of the electronic transfer of bits and bytes that represented money. If you read Dee’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age (sadly renamed and reissued as One from Many) he too was very hard on those around him during his career, Like Jobs and Ueberroth, Dee had a vision that was so clear, so inviolate that compromise was simply not possible. When I asked him why, he looked at me and said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand, something in me would die.”
I hold each of these leaders in the highest esteem. Each opened doors to innovation that might have remained closed for many years without them. And yet, each let some edges of inhumanity slip into their lives. Or perhaps, our definitions of inhuman simply do not allow us to be fully human.
Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret J. Wheatley.