Here’s another apparent fundamental asymmetry: death, or rather life and death. Where’s the asymmetry? Well, there’s lots and lots of issues here.
- we believe we know about life, yet we only have opinions about death
- we see life as good and death as bad, as if they are opposites, yet they are inseparably one 1
- life is celebrated yet death is feared, but we know nothing at all about death to concretise our fear
- we all know that death is the end of the road for us, yet many of us do all we can to avoid ever facing it, while taking out life assurance policies and funeral plans
- life appears to be endless in its possibilities, until we get old
- death appears utterly undesirable, until we get old
It has often been said, usually by psychologists, that there is really only one fear, the fear of death2; and that all other fears are rationalisations, evasion or projections of that one fear.
In 1974 Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death3 won a Pulitzer Prize. Its argument is that the whole of human civilisation is an elaborate scheme to protect us from the knowledge of our own mortality.
There are other suggestions: Karl Albrecht postulates five basic fears, which abbreviated greatly, can be presented as:
- Extinction: fear of annihilation
- Mutilation: fear of losing part of the body
- Loss of Autonomy: the fear of being controlled by circumstances
- Separation: fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness
- Ego-death: the fear of loss of integrity of the Self
All of these appear to be the fear of some level or aspect of death, and can reasonably be directly related, or reduced, to the single utter loss that death is conceived to be.
Our lack of familiarity with death, by examining it and talking about it, perhaps leads to some interesting consequences.
Some of these may be such things as the endless obsession in the media and “entertainment” with murders, serial killers, unsolved murders, disasters and detective stories. Another level of this is probably horror films.
The adolescent obsession with zombies and zombie disasters may spring from the same root.
The long shadow of death
Anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s will be able to describe how, overlaying that whole period, everyone lived under the apparent imminent threat of nuclear holocaust. This threat was such as to make various people, the author included, not bother planning for a future that might never arrive.
With the fall of the Soviet state and the Berlin Wall, all of that seemed to dissipate, fade, pass away. Yet societally that is not the case.
All the same this fear is not the major fear of the Millennial times and people. It has been replaced in the common awareness with a new set of fears. Some of these are:
- Global warming and its consequences
- Pollution and its consequences
- Waste and its consequences
- A distrust of expertise, perhaps in part due to its repeated failure to anticipate unintended consequences
- A rejection of meat-eating, diesel cars, plastics and their consequences
In between there have been other fears, such as those of over-population, disease, terrorism…
Yet could it be the case that powering all this fear is the ultimate fear, the fear of death?
Stepping back a bit from the actual emotive issues, it is reasonably apparent that all of these panics are both:
- potentially justified; that is they might happen, or may be happening
- and from a larger perspective are largely irrelevant, in that even if one of these events does happen and does turn into a catastrophe, and even if we manage to escape the direct consequences through remedial actions or survivalism — we are still all going to die!
Death as a clue
We are so convinced that death is simply the end of a process that it does not ordinarily occur to us to conceive of death as a goal and aCarl Jung
fulfilment, as we do without hesitation the aims and purposes of youthful life in its ascendance
What is death? Whatever else it may be, clearly it is the severing of all attachments, the loss of all possessions, the end of all physical relationships.
This is going to happen to you.
Whatever you do.
Herein lies the clue — what if you were able to sever those attachments, the glamour of the possessions, the clinging to physical relationship — before you die?
What happens if you “die before you die” — but are still “here”5?
What is left?
Is it love?
Would you like to find out?
Love abolishes egoism, it merges the self in the other to find it again enriched in one’s own IOtto Rank
If you are disturbed by anything here, here’s a very brief list of resources that might cheer you up (or not):
- Every life is issued with a built-in death!
- ‘every fear is ultimately the fear of death’ Stekel (1908)
- Let me simply pass on the blessing I was given and say to you “I hope you die soon.” Richard Sylvester