Philosophy Weekend: Denial of Death

(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today’s article, see this post on Tim’s own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim’s blog, entitled “Timeless” — Levi)

Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.

Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?

It’s worth noting what I mean by death. Many religions see the breakdown of the human body as a milestone, marking a transition into a different kind of existence. The Abrahamic religions have largely appropriated the Socratic idea of the immortal soul — that after death we go to an ethereal plain of Heaven, Hell or Sheol. Eastern religions speak about a cycle of rebirth and Karma. Despite ongoing debate about the validity of these claims, I say that since there is no empirical proof of life after death, that we should treat the expiration of our earthly bodies as the end. Nothingness. Annihilation. To use the words of Thomas Nagel: “I shall simply use the word ‘death’ as it cognates in this discussion to mean permanent death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival.”

I press the point here, because it is so easy to resist this idea. Our hopes of ongoing life encourage us to create illusions of comfort like the idea of immortality. Because of the strong motivation to deceive ourselves about the reality of death, we should confront at least the possibility, if not the high probability, that death is ‘it’. Many would disregard this view as being bleak and offering no redemption, but as I will explain, it is quite the opposite. Acknowledging the truth of death reveals life as being the most precious thing we have. Indeed, it is the only thing.

The existence of death denial is abundant in our culture. You can see it scattered through the actions of people and reflected in great literature. One of my favourite passages about death comes from Leo Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych:

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,’ had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

Here Tolstoy articulates quite well how we intellectually know that all people die, but simply don’t apply that logic to ourselves. In his book The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker points out that this narcissism is what keeps a soldier marching into war, not feeling at heart that his life will end, but only feeling sorry for the man next to him. Of course, while this rationale does have merit, the whole truth is not nearly as simple as that. There is great paradox in how we relate with death.

We only need to look at self-preserving behaviour to know that humans acknowledge the possibility of death. We avoid crossing the road when cars are coming, we don’t drink poison, and we eat to sustain ourselves. Yet, other behaviours point the opposite way: People smoke cigarettes, drive dangerously, or, worst of all, live their lives thinking that there is always time ‘later’ to do the things they always wanted to do. The psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg explains this sort of cognitive dissonance as an attempt to repress our deep fear of death, so that we can function normally and not go insane with worry. I think there is some truth there, but in reality we understand from experience that if we’re careful enough, we won’t immediately and violently die for no reason. We therefore push the concept of our own death away.

Because we imagine our life’s end coming at some far off, unspecified date, it becomes difficult to conceive that day ever arriving. This form of death denial can lead us to live complacent lives, to fail to striving for the important things we have time to strive for. Instead, many of us work a daily grind to save money, planning to do the important stuff ‘afterward’. Unfortunately, this afterward might never come. If we actually acknowledge that time is short, we can put into perspective the things that are most precious, and find the courage to use the little life we have to achieve things that give us a sense of joy and meaning now.

You only need to see the success of glittery vampire stories recently to know that the idea of immortality is seductive to most of us. However, there are examples where people acknowledge that living forever might not be such a great thing. In the essay The Makropulos Case collected in the volume Problems of the Self philosopher Bernard Williams reflects on the potential tedium of immortality. He discusses how, given abundant time, our desires would fade and an interest in life would fade away with them. Generally, I find this kind of hypothetical scenario-making unhelpful. The fact remains that no one has ever lived forever, so it’s impossible to imagine how people would truly act and feel, given an eternal life. When there is very little of something, we tend to give it more value. Diamonds are ‘precious’ mostly because they are rare.

Life is much the same. If we think it’s abundant we can lose sight of its value, but if we confront the fact that our lifespan is finite, then our perception changes in how we should spend it: Our desires become more immediate, and our wish to fulfill those desires becomes more pressing. Things like spending time with the ones we love is suddenly given precedence over spending a few extra hours in the office. Making the world a better place for our children becomes paramount. Creating a legacy to leave behind can consume every waking thought.

So why do we ‘all of a sudden’ desire to do certain things over others, when confronted with mortality? The short answer is: because we want our lives to matter. We want to have meaning. By engaging with loved ones we can gather a sense of how much we matter to them, by reflecting on what they mean to us. The more peoples’ lives we touch in a positive way, the better chance we have at making some kind of difference while alive. If we create something that will last — a legacy of art, or thought — then it’s more likely our effect on the world will resonate through the ages.

It’s ironic that these urges can also be seen as a sort of death denial in themselves. The biggest fear I have is not bodily death, but total annihilation — being snuffed out of existence having left no lasting memory of who I was, or having made any kind of mark. In a sense, this is a desire to overcome true death, to defy it, if only to keep a whisper of my self alive.

I have to admit that in some weak (or perhaps strong) moments, I think that truly nothing matters. Most of us will be wiped from the face of the earth without any trace. After the generation following us has gone, there will be no memory of us either. Does this mean that we should descend into despairing nihilism? No! We matter to each other now because we make it so. An existentialist life, where we create meaning for ourselves, is still fulfilling and can lead to immense happiness.

Some might say this means we’re still placing faith in self-created illusions. However, the life we have now is certainly real, and without it we would never experience anything at all. We would never have loved, laughed, tasted, smelt, hurt, cried, or rejoiced. Life is the sweetest thing, and without acknowledging the ultimate truth: that it will end one day, we would never truly cherish the small moments we have, or make the very most of what we have left.

So, make the most of this lifetime. It is all we have, and all that we ever will. After all, it’s not how or when you die that actually matters. It’s how you lived that counts.

11 Responses

  1. I thought you were speaking
    Levi, I thought you were speaking of your own wife, Caryn. But to me, all wives children parents and pets too, are ours. And we tend to feel someone’s tragedies as our own. My favorite anecdote about that is a news story where a fellow was traveling home (to my hometown) from Sioux Falls and ran into a stolen garbage truck that was on the wrong side of the freeway with its lights off. His wife and four children, including infant, were killed. But he survived. And I thought – who’d want to. I always offer to put myself in place of a friend’s dying mother or similar concerns, but obviously we can’t do that. Not that I’m altruistic, just that I feel maybe someone else has more to live for than I do.

    My personal religious view is that “innate intelligence flows through each of us from the well-spring of all souls, past present and eternal” which is a quote from the philosopher-healer BJ Palmer. You see that in all things called “ghosts” by Bill Ectric; or ESP when my sister and I always see a little-known movie on tv; that we’d talked about on the phone an hour earlier. Or her premonitions that happen. Or somebody writing Shakespeare or playing Bach having never heard of them before.

    It seems perfectly clear to me. Conscious spirit flows from and through everyone or maybe everything. If you’re very happy – spirit of Kerouac, Randy California, August Renoir, etc; want to enter your physical existenz. If you’re miserable – gonna get Hitler and Dahmer and Grand Inquisitor spirit in your existenz. Probably sounds stupid to some people; or brilliant to others. But Palmer was onto something. He studied that subject quite a bit. Made it his life’s-work, pretty much.

  2. Heidegger said to live every
    Heidegger said to live every moment realizing death, thus make every moment the most important thing you can do. I’ve always tried to do that, even before reading Heidegger (I suppose others had the same concept). But it leads to a lot of frustration in that almost no one else does. Wasting time is the global past-time; it’s pretty much all we do. So to live outside that domain is to be the one trout (Kilgore?) swimming in the other direction.

    And it’s great that we discuss these very important ideas, but guys like Jesus and Thoreau lived them. Not an easy thing to do. Just sayin’ “words without actions seldom to heaven go.” No pun intended.

  3. I like what you say about the
    I like what you say about the “eternal life” myth. That since we have no knowledge of eternal life, we should assume that death is our expiration. (Please correct me if I have paraphrased improperly).

    However, you’re omitting how powerful belief can be. If someone truly believes that this life is only a testing ground for their belief/faith in God, and that He will grant them either eternal life or eternal damnation based on what they did here, this belief has a powerful and profound impact on their decisions on how to approach this life, what to do, what to say, how to treat people,etc etc.

    Also, diamonds are burned by the pound in order to keep the supply low enough to warrant their outrageous prices. The idea that we simply are annihilated is like diamonds. This myth is used to keep people afraid of their own death,thinking it is the end, when actually it is the beginnng (in my personal belief).

    I’ve been a smoker since the age of 14 because I want to be reunited with God a bit quicker. I don’t like this place.

  4. Your photo – In Time is one
    Your photo – In Time is one of the great philosophical-art movies ever; like The Matrix and many current recent or past art-films.

    However, unbeknownst to us, the Judeo-Christian weltgeist is so pervasive in all our thinking that we unconsciously blame God for everything even if we don’t believe in God. My sister hates it here (being alive) because God made a shitty world which is why she doesn’t believe in God. Perhaps the cop out for us failing to make the world as we want it to be.

    Then again, nullifying the moment as Lou Reed said, is our rage against mortality. But Eliot explained the human condition “between the thought and the deed falls the shadow.” We fear to be our real selves, despite all good intentions. It’s caused by poor upbringing, poor schooling, lack of knowledge of the world’s great books. And I’d like to change that.

    If we posit a world without God, then it’s man-made. And our position becomes the inverse of the serenity prayer – we accept it, change it, or admit we’re too weak, stupid, or lazy to try. Which is the crux of the oblivion argument – if we ignore it (with a million and one distractions) we don’t have to face our will to duty. “Keep them doped w religion and sex and tv but they’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

    Btw, I mentioned on an Indie writers chat board – lotta duckin fiscussion goin on, while I spent hours and days on Facebook chatting w writers and publishers from all over the world. A great intellectual magazine like Litkicks, done up right by a great intellectual artist like Levi Asher, talking about very important things. And there’re 3 ducking responses? Jaysoose, great minds of the world, whatcha up to? Watching re-runs of the Golden Girls?

  5. Actually, the original Hebrew
    Actually, the original Hebrew word Sheol had the meaning of ‘grave’ or ‘pit’. In the Scriptures, Sheol was never used to refer to an afterlife or continuing existence.

  6. For many years I was afraid
    For many years I was afraid of going to hell. For that reason, I always hoped that when we die, our consciousness was simply extinguished, so I’ve never understood why people are worried about the idea that they would simply cease to exist. That sounds like a good option to me! Now, I’m not sure if death is the end, but I don’t believe in hell. The stories I write are just having fun with imagination for the most part.

  7. We are unable to fully grasp
    We are unable to fully grasp this great mystery of Life that we all share Now without “going metaphysical” to at least a certain extent. When we speak of death, we are speaking of the end of the ego life, that which makes up not only our physicality but our character, that which identifies us as individuals (and any life form in actuality). When our bodies can no longer support our Inner Light (the source of all Life) does not extinguish that Light (which is Eternal), but the body goes the way of all living things throughout this Earth of ours… recycles itself to later manifest within other living things.

    In speaking of this I use the analogy of the ubiquitous light bulb. There are many, many different shapes, sizes and uses of bulbs to serve different purposes. Using that as a leaping point, hu’manity is diverse with each and everyone of us serving different purposes for the sustainability of our all-to-hu’man life until our body (the bulb), no longer shares the light for one reason or another… it’s a material vehicle that transports the Universal Light. When a light bulb burns out or breaks, the energy that creates that light returns to the source of that energy.

    So when we speak of the eternity of life, we are speaking of the eternal light within us and within all living things. We are all working together to sustain the miracle of this thing we call “Life”… the consciousness that brings it into being. If we were not cognizant of life, including our own life, arguably we would not be part of life… we would be dead, no thing, nada, zilch… and who amongst us would prefer that and not the alternative – being of the Light that burns within all and gives all the miracle of living?

    Given passed experiences with this subject, there are more folks than not who shake their heads in disbelief in what they are hearing (or reading here), and that is why I began this with “going metaphysical”, which is the path to not only comprehending this but accepting it.

    Tim Hawken, I think you ended your essay with a great positive by recognizing the true importance of life… living and living the best we know as fully as we are able, for existence is far shorter than life itself and we are a drop in this universal ocean of life.


  8. mtmynd, I like your anaology
    mtmynd, I like your anology to a light bulb. Our thoughts are conveyed via synapses in the brain. Some synapses are electrical but most are chemical. Either way, your analogy makes sense because the electro-chemical energy is like a branch of the source. Cool.

  9. I suppose we get the fact we
    I suppose we get the fact we’ll all be dead soon. Reading and writing this is ephemeral, chimera dust in the wind. Our concept of the now nothing more than some unknown sailor’s life and death four hundred years ago. We sublimate that bcuz there’s nothing else we can do. We can’t possibly face up to it; and survive day to day. Would tax us more than we could bear. I oughtta know.

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