May 06, 2008
A great many -maybe even most- anxiety and panic sufferers have a "thing" which triggers their most nightmarish sensations and feelings and fears. And for many of those, the concept of death is what pulls the handle.
Notice, I said, the "concept" of death or dying -not just the fear that we might have a fatal disease at work in us. We might be as healthy as possible, yet be haunted by the fact of, the reality of -our death one day. The usual assurances and mechanisms of denial don't work with us. Take the notion of an eternal life in heaven; I hold out to you that even if we KNEW FOR A FACT (as opposed to a belief) that such was our destiny, we would still cry out in terror in our beds at night. Why? We would do so because the notion of "eternity" would then become the icon of our private horror show. And why would the "concept" of eternity do that? Why, indeed. I'll get around to that.
But first, let me lay some foundational material here so you will be convinced that I really, really DO understand this feeling. It started for me when I was a child - perhaps 6 or 7 years old. And it started in bed one night, in the dark, lying there, thinking about the prayer my mother would have me recite before crawling in: "...and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Die? Die?! THAT'S going to happen to me someday and THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT IT. From that point forward, until my late-40's, that "eventuality" -as people in the death business call it, would intrude frequently in my thoughts -with all the massive and staggering implications YOU know so well. Imagine that, a little kid, thinking about his own mortality. In therapy, as a man in midlife, my psychiatrist and I explored my history of panic -and why the concept of death had been so prominent. I found the answer. The panic and anxiety are gone -and the fear of death has gone with it. I say all this to say that I DO know where you are coming from, and DO know it is possible -perhaps, even, inevitable- that you will work through it. By this journal entry, I hope to show you the possibility of an exit from the terror -and give you a head start. I hope you will let me know what you think about it.
Let's begin, first of all, by rationally attacking one of the key components of our fear, which is that the fear is utterly and inarguably rational and reasonable because death itself is inescapable -you can't do anything about it. Perhaps we can be talked out of fear of elevators, flying or public speaking, because those are things you can "do something about." But not the grim reaper, not death, not becoming worm food, not eternity. There's no sugar coating for that, there's no looking beyond.
This point of view is understandable, but it misses the fact that many people -millions of people- are not afraid. Who are these people, and why are they not afraid? The most extreme example with which we are familiar are suicide bombers who freely and willingly sacrifice their own lives in exchange for money for their families and a presumed fast track to a divine reward, to say nothing of believing in a cause. For them, "death" is a means to an end -and one which many of them happily accept. Many are motivated by anger and hate -albeit it a cultivated prejudice, it demonstrates that if anyone is mad enough, they'll accept their own death in exchange for some reward. You know that what I say is inarguable and unassailable; it is fact.
On the other side are those who do not even consider their own lives when protecting the lives of people they love, such as parents who sacrifice themselves to save their children. You may know people who have put themselves in harm's way to protect loved one's -may have done so yourself, or perhaps have been saved by such heroism. The motive here is different than the suicide bombers -but the impact is the same.
And there are others. People who are in extreme pain actually LONG for death as a release -and the world is full of such individuals who would rather die than suffer, and beg to be released from their suffering. The number is in the millions, and no one will argue this point.
And there was my Mother, who died peacefully and fully aware of what was happening. She actually imparted far more assurance to her loved ones than they were ever able to give her. I suspect that she is by no means the only person to have done so.
There is also a substantial population of spiritually and religiously inclined people whose very view of reality simply does not accord death the same meaning as we panic people do. A favorite priest of mine says in paraphrase, that for the believing Christian, the eternal kingdom of God is right now and right here -so get to work! To him, death, I think, is more in the nature of a transfer than a retirement program.
I'll leave it to you to flesh out the above examples with ones of your own, but you take my point- a great many people do not, in fact, fear death as you and I do. Does this mean they have no fear of it whatsoever? No, of course not, and, as Woody Allen once said, they may "rather not be there at the time." Their fear, however, exists in the context of all their other fears, desires, hopes, happiness, despair -and all the other human feelings, thoughts and sensations.
Another group -perhaps the largest- includes the ones you probably have in mind: those who have not thought about it enough. And in fact, there is much in culture which is designed to soften our fear, or even make it somehow joyful. The notion of a comfortably fitted casket, a large life insurance award for your successors, grave yards and mortuaries which suggest that life continues somehow, popular ideas about ghosts and spirits which come and go depending on current cultural fixations. Or, on the other hand, the machinery of denial, to "live, drink and be merry," in all the forms it takes from accepting a risky dare to the most excessive life styles. Big business, that. And there is no denying that those who have NOT thought about it "enough" may be in for a rude surprise when their "time comes." But even this group of "non-thinkers" is evidence that, for whatever reason, probably more people are less afraid than YOU and I are, at least, for now.
So, it is probably fair to say, that you and I are in a very small minority. And that tells us that no matter how convinced we are of the terror of our own extinction, it is also possible for us to NOT be so afraid.
So, the questions are, how is it that YOU and I are so alert to the reality and concept of death? What makes US so different? And the BIG question: aware as we are of the magnitude of the event, how can we learn to live happily with it? Even to the point of the obsession taking a "back seat" in our thinking? How, indeed.
Earlier, I mentioned that even if we KNEW that our lives would go on forever, that then we would fear eternity, the notion of, "forever." (Use whatever works for you: eternal "damnation," "judgment," etc.) Why would the concept leap-frog from one fear to the other? The fact that it does so is a clue that our psychology is as much at work in our fear of death as the fact of death itself. There is SOMETHING ABOUT US that plays a part. What, then?
I hold out to you that it is not so much death we fear, as it is the uncomfortable sense that we are not living fully and well, or that we are not meeting such tests of our worth as we or others impose upon us. The concept of death is a token, an icon, a mental "game piece," which expresses in one exquisite emotional jolt that we don't matter much, are not important, have been or shall feel we have been abandoned, sense that we are failing. On top of all that, we also sense that time is running out or that we may never be able to be acceptable, esteemed, valued, loved, desired, or acquire or arrive at whatever plateau or place in life we either want for ourselves or are told we must reach. "What's going to happen to me?" and "I can't do anything about it," are much more referable to the views, attitudes and experiences of life than death. The confusion of thoughts and feelings about how well we are doing is masked in a culture and in relationships which compete for our affiliation, allegiance and attention, however. Precisely because it is difficult to know where we stand, it is difficult to articulate our feelings about it. And because life is fast and changing -with values and priorities that shift at every turn, there is hardly time to place ourselves on a yardstick whose markings are always changing. What was TRUE or believable yesterday may NOT be true or believable today.
What's going on here is that to the extent we rely on "outside" messages about what we should do and how we should act and what is important, we play a risky game, psychologically, because the nature of the game, the rules and the system of scoring exist outside of us -and they are always changing. While the expression of change may be technical (the Ipods, cell phones, fancy new cars and TV sets) or personal (Dr. Phil, latest books on spirituality, new diets, environmental awareness, what schools the kids are in) they all boil down to having or doing the "right thing," and the point of reference is the culture itself. In particular, that culture is based on consumption -producing and using up material- and our entire society relies on either producing, delivering, or consuming wealth. (For more on this, see my Journal: "East Meets West"). Consequently, whatever is available to be consumed or used is constantly changing so as to create and meet demand.
Into this context, we take our experiences in early childhood and beyond. We are compelled at first to seek the love of parents, acceptance and inclusion in our families. If we fail in this, or think we have failed, we may rely on various psychological defenses to compensate in one way or another. Later, we attempt to fit into peer groups and school and sports or activity venues which become the basis for others to judge our fit and either reward us or exclude us. Finally, as working adults, the mission of inclusion and acceptance becomes the principle means by which we judge how well we are doing, and whether we are esteemed and valued by others -and therefore, by ourselves. Except where our nature and behavior is highly valuable to the group or accorded some great amount of respect (athletes, musicians, etc.) conformance to the group is more highly valued than individuality. Eventually, what began as a child's attempts to be present to the loving attention of a parent are transformed into the mission to be acceptable and esteemed to the culture itself. Given the speed with which life moves and changes, it is entirely possible to over-look or set aside our own notions about "what works for us." We are as dependent on the messages of culture, society and peer groups about our standing as a vegetative patient is dependent on life support for air. Remove it -and we wilt.
I hold out to you, as well, that many of the values we hold are in conflict with what culture tells us. Culture tell us that we are "entitled" to personal happiness and fulfilment, and so in the mission to achieve this, we seek a divorce so we may be free of a spouse's issues. Yet on the the other hand we may NOT get the divorce because, it would put the children at risk. You supply your own troubled cross-roads decisions.
Given culture as it is, it is entirely possible that we don't really even KNOW what works for us, let alone the means to pursue it. But the end result is the sense that we are somehow falling behind; somehow, what seemed important really is not, and if it is, it will not be tomorrow. That is the cost of depency on external sources for information on what to believe in, and how to measure the effectiveness of acting out your beliefs.
On the other hand, knowing more about what does matter to us puts the ball back in our court, psychologically. Joy in living is possible when you you know what matters to you, because the yardstick for measuring your progress is one of your own creation. There is joy in the discovery of what is important, and joy in the pursuit of it. The focus moves from failing to meet externally supplied targets, to anticipating the challenges of living a life of your own design. It may well be the job of therapy (it was for me) to discern your own values and understand more about how to live them out. But, once the point of focus has moved from a destiny that is not of your own making to one that is substantially of your own creation, the need of an icon such as death to represent your dependency on the cultural life support system disappears.
I offer for your consideration that the obsession with death is far more present at your times of sensing uncertainty about the meaning of your life then it is when you are centered and focused on actually living in accordance with whatever meaning you give it. In such a context, what you can do right this moment is supremely more important than some future event which you cannot control. I would argue, in fact, that the concept of death -and the uncertainty about our ultimate destiny- is an encapsulated version of our uncertainty about the here and now. Take care of the here and now, and there is little time to obsess about the ultimate destiny. It is essential to understand that YOUR here and now is an intensly personal derivation of your values and cannot, except in the broadest moral imperatives, be derived from your culture. It comes from within YOU.
You do NOT fear death. You fear life. And that, my friend IS something you CAN change.