The Delusion of Immortality

Posted on January 20, 2015 by Robert Ringer


The facts notwithstanding, I believe that a majority of people unthinkingly delude themselves about their mortality — meaning that they act as though they believe they are immortal. Of course, they don’t consciously admit it, at least not to others.

I’ve known more than one person who acted as though he believed he will be the first human being to live forever. When I say acted, I’m referring to lifestyle. Why else would an individual smoke, take drugs, drink excessively, or eat a diet loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, sugar, and processed foods?

A wise philosopher friend of mine once asked me who the biggest mass murderer in history was. I knew it was a trick question, one to which most people give the knee-jerk response “Adolf Hitler,” “Mao,” or “Stalin.” All of these men murdered millions of their own countrymen, and their death rampages didn’t come to an end until they died (Mao and Stalin) or were forcibly stopped (Hitler).

“Wrong,” said my friend. “The greatest mass murderer in history was Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s.” I got the message. Ruthless dictators use violence. There is no pretense of fun, no clown frolicking on television in an attempt to convince people that happiness awaits them in the gulag.

The fast-food folks, however, while publicly supporting charitable causes aimed at saving the planet and helping the poor, maintain fun-looking killing machines throughout the world — colorful little shacks filled with food weapons that turn people’s bodies into medical time bombs.

Prostate and colon cancer, arteriosclerosis, stroke, and diabetes, while not as spectacular as decapitations and firing squads, succeed year after year in piling up the kind of impressive fatality numbers that would make run-of-the-mill serial killers envious.

In fairness, however, don’t blame the fast-food executioners if you should get killed by a deadly burger, taco, or innocent-looking slice of pizza. These guys are humble. They know full well that they couldn’t do it without their customers’ willingness to delude themselves.

It’s analogous to people getting the government they deserve. While there certainly are exceptions, most people get the health they deserve.

Then there are cigarettes. For more than thirty years, my eldest sister became angry with anyone in our family who urged her to stop smoking. In a spirit of defensiveness, she insisted that she simply enjoyed smoking, notwithstanding the fact that she was a highly intelligent, well-informed individual who certainly was aware of the much-publicized facts regarding cigarette smoke.

Sadly, the day the doctor handed my sister her death warrant — a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer — she immediately stopped smoking. She spent the rest of her days angry with herself for “being so stupid.” And, of course, she didn’t miss the enjoyment she once got from cigarettes.

If you’ve ever witnessed someone dying of cancer, you know that it’s a pretty grim scene, one you never forget. It certainly makes you think long and hard about your own mortality.

I believe that what allows a person to engage in a dangerous activity with impunity, be it smoking, unhealthy eating, or drunk driving, is the self-delusion that he will be the one to defy the odds and escape the inevitable consequences of his actions. Coming to grips with one’s own mortality requires that an individual override his wishes with reality and guide his actions accordingly.

If truth is the underpinning of rational action, then the first and most critical truth to accept is the reality that you are not immortal. One’s own mortality is another one of those truths that most people accept on an intellectual level but do not believe on a day-to-day, emotional level. The best way to combat this dangerous mind-set is to be vigilant about eliminating any delusions you may be unconsciously harboring about your own mortality.

Ironically, the more you act on the belief that you’re immortal, the sooner you are likely to find out, to your dismay, that you are not. A better idea is to live in accordance with truth and enjoy good health while you’re here. The reason you must be vigilant about this matter is because you will always be surrounded by temptations to eat, drink, and partake in activities that are anti-life. Instant gratification is unlikely to be gratifying enough to offset years of regret.

Trust me on this one: You are mortal. Accept this reality, be protective of your well-being, treat your body with respect, and you may just stick around long enough to enjoy a life worth living.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

20 responses to “The Delusion of Immortality”

  1. Dear Robert, yes, indeed the perspective of today changes tremendously once we move forward into a future when the game will have been just over and look backward at today. The awareness of Mortality is Awakening. Thank you for the post. Kind regards, Waldemar

  2. Steven says:

    Absolutely correct. To the extent that one is aware that one will die it massively improves the choices one makes.

    • Yes, indeed! And, if we could pull it off, the is a paradoxical state of belief that is even more productive, potentially. And that is, LIVE AS IF WE WILL DIE TOMORROW, AND AT THE SAME TIME, AS IF WE WILL LIVE FOREVER.

  3. larajf says:

    I think self-delusion is the cause of business failure as well. We keep telling ourselves we know what we're doing (writing a book, developing a course, prospecting for clients) and we don't.
    But like our health, our happiness & success are up to us. It's no one else's "fault."

  4. bullwinkle says:

    The VP(Biden) said the best thing you can do for your health is diet n excercise, oh I meant sign up for Obamacare, healthy mind n Body, what happened to Sports being something you do ? if you watch it while drinking n grillin' is it better for you, "The Obama Death Spiral" I think that's it, if we all are narcissists and talk on a smart phone aren't we smart 'nuff, maybe there will be a "laugh track" w/ the conservative rebuttal to the President's Address tonight, he's had 5 times to get it right, if a conservative thinks in the woods is he still wrong ? (alone)

  5. Sean Baltz says:

    Mr. Ringer, again, shares a powerful life truth we all must embrace for our ultimate good.

    • Yes, Mr. Ringer is a true Way-Shower! He shows the way to be and do. I read his work way back in the 70s, and it made a positive difference in how I governed my professional life. His teachings worked! One I will never forget is: BE THE EXPERT FROM AFAR. How true that was and is. At one point I moved to one of my prime touring destinations. I became a "local" and my clientele in that city dwindled. The Expert from Afar has a much greater appeal! And, gotta get 'im while he's here!

  6. Diane Young says:

    When people get a bad diagnosis, they usually say, or at least think, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I
    would have taken better care of myself." Men in particular are famous for dedicating themselves to their lifestyle,
    at the expense of their health. Ultimately, more health-minded wives inherit their care "for the last mile or so before they set off to explore that long silence," in the words of P.D James.

  7. Ray K says:

    Interesting viewpoint. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations wrote about death: it is either extinction, dissolution or salvation. My understanding of his comment was that salvation was not rebirth of the mortal body, but that the spirit or soul continued as the basic energy of the universe, in another form. When we're gone, we're gone.

  8. Paul Anthony says:

    Taking unnecessary risks is foolish, but let's not forget that we will all die someday, no matter what.
    This reminds me of an old joke:
    Two women are at a wake. Mrs. Smith says "Poor Mr. Walters. I'd heard he had cancer, but I didn't think it would be fatal".
    Mrs. Jones replies "Oh, they cured his cancer".
    Then Mrs. Smith says, with a sigh "Well, at least he died healthy".

  9. Daniel Wiener says:

    I'm reminded of an amusing quote from "The Princess Bride", when Buttercup and Westley are about to enter the Fire Swamp. Buttercup objects that "We'll never survive." To which Westley responds "Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has." My comparable reply to your statement "Trust me on this one: You are mortal." would be "Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one has ever avoided death."

    It's quite rational to believe that the rapid advances in the biological and medical sciences will solve the problem of aging in the not-too-distant future. In which case a large fraction of the existing population may indeed turn out to be immortal (or at least they'll live so long that we won't be able to prove the contrary).

    That being said, it does not invalidate your primary thesis. If anything it reinforces it. The healthier a life style a person leads, the less likely that person is to prematurely die. And the longer a person can remain alive, the more opportunity there is for medical science to find ways to further extend that person's life span. In the meantime you'll live a happier life. There's no downside to that, and potentially a huge (indefinitely long) upside.

    • One of my teachers (not school) led a healthy life and mind-style, and he was clear and energetic and accomplished much more than most people ever hope to. Then, only about 60 years old, he dropped dead in a few seconds. Whatta way to go! I conclude, longevity is not necessarily the goal, especially if we are ill or lack energy along the way. Good or excellent health while alive is the better goal. In my opinion.

  10. Fred says:

    Just as it is appointed for people to die once and after this judgment. Hebrews 9:27. Believe it or not, the real risk is assuming our soul dies with our earthly body.

  11. george says:

    Stop eating wheat products or at least cut down on wheat. It is poison. See Dr Davies on youtube.
    If you slow down on the wheat you can probably lose 10 lbs easily.
    Good luck, enjoy the quality of life,and the good people in it.

  12. One of my favorite quotes through the years is from the writings of John Stuart Mill, a Pragmatist, who said, MOST MEN (people) SACRIFICE THE ULTIMATE GOOD FOR THE IMMEDIATE PLEASURE. That sums things up! And, for thinking people capable of making judgments, the Ancients of India advocated but ONE overriding, all-inclusive moral principle: AHIMSA, meaning, DO NO HARM TO SELF OR OTHER. The Ten Commandments are fragmentary by contrast. Religious people tend to believe their particular religion contains the entire answer to everything.
    I was taken to church as a child, and I value what I learned to believe, and what I learned NOT to believe during those early years. People who grow up not having been taught VALUES can become dangerous to both self and other.

  13. kena5 says:

    This is a very timely article. Our mortality and our health are synonymous. Now at 61 I look back at all of the mistakes I've made but moreover the life changing attitudes I've made to improve my health and well-being. I am grateful the I have lived as long as I have and have made up my mind to quit smoking (years ago), eating sugar, white flour and especially fast-foods like Big Macs and Pizza and avoid stressful crowds.

    At the day of our death we have no one to answer to but ourselves for the choices we make in our earthly sojourn and to God who created us. Thanks for the great article Robert.

  14. Robert Bonter says:

    So often we hear stories about his this person or that person drank like a fish, smoked cigars, and overate daily, but lived to age 99. And then the person telling the tale will credit "genetics" for the longevity of the indulgent person being discussed. As though living a life of moderation is negated for its beneficial value if you drew the wrong genetics lottery number.

    I notice that men who take ridiculous chances seem to be high-testosterone ego maniacs. Their ego blocks their sense of the peril involved in their life style excesses, so that they attach "bravery" to their wanton acts of self-destruction, whether immediate or long-term by implication. I think of matadors, NASCAR and Formula 1 drivers, mercenary soldiers, physical contact sports athletes, consumptive addicts of all kinds, etc.

    I don't care for high-risk life-style people. They compensate outwardly with exhibitionist behavior for their inner spirit shortcomings, is how I see them. Most were unloved in infancy and childhood and seem to crave the spotlight in adulthood, as compensation for their instability and restless spirit. Frankly, these people bore the hell out of me with their frenzied, shallow focus on the external side of life.

  15. lonny says:

    Ray Croc didn't murder millions, nor did he set out to. They committed suicide. As far as the delusion of immortality… can credit that to Christianity!

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