The American psychologist Ernest Becker believed that a fear of death was the key motivator for the majority of human activity. Can a thought experiment where we live our lives backwards reveal insights that can help us navigate our life lived forward, helping us understand how we can better cope with our inescapable mortality and how to make the most of the time we have? The thought experiment can take us on a backwards journey through the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer, Soren Kierkegaard, Immanuel Kant, the Venerable Bede, Lao-Tzu and Marcus Aurelius.
I have always had this nagging feeling that this is not going to end well. Death looms over us all. American Psychologist Ernest Becker believed that it does more than just loom. He believed that most of our activity is driven by unconscious efforts to deny our mortality. Becker claimed: ‘We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of underlying helplessness and terror of our inevitable death.’ (1) Building on the work of Becker, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski developed Terror Management Theory. It proposes that the terror of death has, since the first settlements in Neolithic Eastern Europe and the Middle East built the first permanent settlements around sites of ritual and worship through to the modern-day resurgence in fundamental religions and the secular attempts at cryogenics and downloading ourselves into eternal algorithms, guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.(2)
At the same time, we are storytelling creatures, whom the US scholar Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal (2012) calls ‘Homo fictus.’ Gottschall identifies ‘a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome’ that, no matter how far we travel back into literary and folk history, give these stories a universal grammar. (3) We use the same grammar to tell stories about ourselves where we are the hero, progressing through a beginning, middle and end. These stories, create the character Becker refers to, and tie us to the culture Solomon, Greenburg and Pyszczynski describe, giving us a sense that we’re part of something greater than ourselves, which will continue after we die. Even, in the case of religious stories, allowing us to continue beyond death. But there is still that nagging feeling: this is not going to end well. Nevertheless, according to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, we go on with our lives just as someone might blow as big a soap bubble as they can trying to get it to last for as long as possible, although, deep down, being certain it is going to burst. (4)
But what if life was not lived this way? There is a comedy routine, likely first performed by American comedian Sean Morely that starts, ‘In my next life I want to live my life backwards.’ It envisages getting death out of the way on day one (maybe rising phoenix-like from your ashes or bursting zombie-like from the grave). You then spend time in an old people’s home feeling better every day, before embarking on the rest of your life. The idea of a life lived backwards is also explored in two very different novels: American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922) (5) and Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence (1991). (6)
Amis’ novel recounts the life of a German Holocaust doctor in reverse chronology. The war criminal in question is introduced to us, at the end of his life, as an old man in the US. The novel moves backwards through his time on the run, back to his time in Auschwitz. Fitzgerald’s story was inspired by another American novelist’s, Mark Twain’s lament that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst at the end. Button is born with the body and sensibilities of a 70-year-old, capable of speech, but not complete with the memories of the life he has not yet lived. He then ages backwards. It is a satire exploring the situations created by Button being at different stages of life and travelling in a different direction from those around him.
What if we took the joke more seriously, contravened the second law of thermodynamics and ran the clock backwards so we all move in that direction. Could this reveal insights that can help us navigate our life lived forward? Can a world where cause and effect move forwards, but we get death out of the way at the beginning helping us understand how we can better cope with our inescapable mortality and how to make the most of the time we have?
For someone like me who is finding it harder and harder to convince themselves that they are not well past their physical peak, the idea of physically ageing backwards is attractive. The median age at death in the UK is in the eighties, yet we reach our physical peak in our late twenties. Most of life is a slow physical decline (in the best-case scenario). Moving backwards you would work until you’re young enough to enjoy the hedonism of youth, before becoming a kid with no responsibilities, spending your time playing. Would it be better to have the period when you are responsibility-free and in your physical prime towards the end of life? In the thought experiment it would also be at a time of your life when you better understand yourself, the world, and others.
As a young man I was a soldier. A senior officer, who was married with children, shared his belief that key decisions on the battlefield should be made by the young and single. He believed they were more likely to do what was right for the mission, rather than be distracted by the desire to get home safely to their family. This might not be relevant to many professions, yet if senior officers knew that every year that passed, they would get closer to the frontline they may care more for those at the end of their long command chain. This has similarities with the American philosopher John Rawls’ ‘original position’ thought experiment. In it you are asked to consider which principles you would select to determine the structure of society if you had no knowledge of what position you would end up having in that society, or your or anyone else’s idea of how to lead a good life.
The teenage years would have the added hedonism that would come with knowing you only have a set amount of time left. But we would not be heading for death, though. The comedy routine skips the details of how you get into the womb, but it imagines you would spend your last nine months in isolated calm before, ‘Voila! You finish off as an orgasm!’ An act of uncreation. Moving backward to a fixed point of ‘birth’ would likely change how we lived our final decades. Birthdays would have an added significance. Our behavior towards others would be impacted too. Psychological studies have shown that when reminded of death, we become more hostile towards people who aren’t like us. This, though, is in the context of not knowing when and how death will come. Fears focus on potential causes of death such as sources of contamination or people we perceive as dangerous (we are hardwired to see those who are different as more of a threat).
However, researchers have found that asking people how they will die and what impact it will have on their families, rather than asking subjects to think abstractly about death, causes different reactions. People become reflective about what matters and determined to spend time with loved ones. This is backed up by studies of palliative care patients, who, like those in our experiment, know the when and how. They are freed from the uncertainty of not knowing. Many either decide to put their all into fighting their illness - pointless in our experiment - or spend their time reflecting on their life, doing activities that bring them joy and surrounding themselves with loved ones. Palliative patients often have very little time to do this. Those moving backwards would have more time. But ultimately we all have a fixed point we are heading to, we just don’t have the luxury of knowing its date. Our challenge is to be as determined to focus on what matters without that without the terminal diagnosis.
Living life backwards would have a profound impact on family relationships. Entering the world our middle-aged children would be there for us. We would be there for them as they retreated to childhood. Our parents would arrive in our middle age and be there to comfort our infantile older selves. The final chapter of Benjamin Button describes the comforting awareness of the elderly child’s surroundings, “There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep… There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes.’ (5) The reversing of the process poses questions about the duty we have to those at the end of their life: Should we devote the same attention, resource and education to the needs of our parents at the end of their lives as we do to our children at the beginning of their lives?
What would we be like having not experienced the love a parent has towards a helpless new-born at the beginning of our lives? This love is in large part shaped by the helplessness of a newborn infant, but it is also their innocence. A wrong committed against someone who has committed no wrong, has a tragic asymmetry. We become harder to love unconditionally as we become the flawed adults we all become. Yet, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’ (9) Accepting our flawed nature could help us treat others better, even our closest loved ones, whomever they become..
Whatever the direction we can never be there for all those we love, for all their lives. Our lives will only overlap theirs: we will either miss their end or their beginning. Either direction, there is always a last time we will see them.
At the end of life, we would dissolve into our parents, who themselves would be subsumed into our grandparents and so on until all of mankind was one. The concept of the self being liberated from the body and becoming one with an eternal universal is found in differing forms in Buddhism. At the end of Fitzgerald’s story, he describes the slow unravelling of the self.
And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried - that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness. Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind. (5)
We focus on the binary of alive/dead, the finality of that moment of death, that single moment of permanent change, but when death comes from natural causes it is a longer process involving body and soul.
This world of reversed lives would still see deaths from illness, accidents, suicide, and violence. These deaths are more tragic, especially deaths of children. As well as the innocence of the very young, much of the tragedy comes from what the dead do not get to experience - all the life they miss. If life is lived backwards then all that missed life happens before you appear in the world. We are not troubled by our non-existence in the billions of years of the universe’s existence before we are born, but we are troubled by our non-existence after the brief period we are alive.
In the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History he compares a life to a sparrow flying from the winter darkness into a lighted hall, into the warmth and cheerfulness for a moment, then out once more into the night. (10) No matter the direction of travel we should rejoice at the warmth and cheerfulness our brief flight allows us, rather than the dark either side. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus claimed that ‘Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.’ It is only those left in the hall that are impacted, the moment we fly out into the dark we are no more. Those left in the hall that love us will miss us. They can take comfort, though, in the memories of us and by sharing stories of what we did during our brief time in the light. Those who left behind in the hall will know grief, and those that know grief understand something more about life. It is only in the pain and sorrow of permanent loss that all the joy and affection become truly appreciated. With grief there is an order of cause and effect.
In Amis’ story it is not just time that is moving backwards but causality is too. When we reach the dark horror of Auschwitz a whole race is created from the smoke of the crematoriums. In Amis’ fictional world soldiers would create life from the mud of the battlefield. Artillery pieces and airborne bombers would retrieve their bombs, as they do in a famous chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. (7) In it the hero Billy Pilgrim watches, backwards, a late-night movie of American bombers recovering their bombs from a burning Dresden, repairing the city bomb by bomb. Vonnegut goes on to describe the bombs being sent back to a factory where their dangerous contents are separated into harmless minerals. The recasting of war as a redemptive and restorative force, highlights the insanity of war run forward.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard claimed that ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ (8) For the narrator of Time’s Arrow, the disconnected conscience of the protagonist, experiencing life moving backwards only increases misunderstanding. He is constantly confused by the backwards cause and effect of events. He is puzzled why people wait for an hour in a doctor’s waiting room after being examined.
Across many cultures and ages, the idea of fate and a pre-determination has, to varying degrees, been widely believed, from the interventions of the gods into the lives of the heroes of Homer’s epic poems to the pre-destination of Christianity, to qisma or kismet in Islam, and to concepts like karma and destiny in Indian and East Asian philosophies and belief systems. Across all of these, the balance of what is determined and what we have free will to choose is of profound interest and debate.
Causal determinists believe there is no free will, and our path is already set in living lives forward. They claim events are determined by previously existing causes and there is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the beginning of time. Recent studies in neuroscience have highlighted the role in ‘decision making’ of unconscious processes before our conscious self is engaged. These suggest the conscious is there to provide post-hoc justification for decisions already made. Belief in determinism challenges our lived experience of making choices. Many feel that without conscious free will our life is somewhat diminished. In Amis’ novel we have absolute determinism, there is no place for free will. Everything that has shaped the protagonist has already happened. Living through the effects of causes yet to happen not only violates what we understand to be key rules of the physical world but also our experience of being human in it. Ultimately this is the limit of the joke. The way we experience causality means we can only move through time one way. Trying to think through the wider of consequences of a world where some of the key principles of physics are suspended and what impact this would have the totality of human relationships and experiences is an impossible task. A life lived backwards is an amusing imaginative exercise, a joke that makes you look at the familiar in a new light. For me though it can highlight and even reassert some of the key lessons I have learnt moving forward through life. We cannot get death out of the way. Whether we move forward or backwards, as the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi notes, ‘All things pass.’ (11) Taking inspiration from our joke, we can think differently about it, and manage the terror it instils in us. Another Stoic, the Roman General and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, tells us ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.’ (12) Accepting our biological fate can help us cease our continual striving for enduring meaning and magical thinking. In a life lived backwards we can recognize the garden is beautiful enough, without needing there to be fairies at the bottom of it. We can be inspired to move our narrative focus away from the destination and false promises of a universal beyond the end, back on to the scenery along the way: the series of moments that make up our lives, and the loved ones who share those moments with us, all the warmth and cheerfulness in the stages of life that come before the end, whatever order they come.
- Becker, E., “The Denial of Death”, 1973
- Solomon, S., et al., “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life”, 2015
- Gottschall, J., “The Storytelling Animal“, 2012
- Schopenhauer, A., “The World as Will and Representation: Volume I”, 1818
- Scott Fitzgerald’, F,. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, 1922
- Amis, M., “Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence”, 1991
- Vonnegut, K., “Slaughterhouse Five or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death”, 1969
- Kierkegaard, S,. “Journals, Volume IV”, 1843.
- Kant, I., “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” 1784.
- Bede, Venerable, “Ecclesiastical History”, 731
- Lao-Tzu, “All Things Pass (poem)”, ca. 6th century BC
- Aurelius, M., “Meditations”, 161-180