Human beings are the only living creatures endowed with a full awareness of their mortality, a wound so painful that they’re driven to pull every cognitive trick in the book to deny it. As with any skill, some of us are far better at this than others, yielding a wide range of conscious reactions to the notion of personal non-being. For some, it’s almost impossible—literally impossible—to believe that one day they will entirely cease to exist, that their particular personhood will never recur. Others, in contrast, live in perpetual and active fear that any day might be their last, their ability to live ruined by their certain knowledge that they will one day die. Even if they have religious views, those beliefs often aren’t strong enough to beat back the instinctual fear that accompanies rumination on their own mortality.
I’ve vacillated between these two extremes myself. Like most people, I had no emotional belief in my mortality for most of my life—until I was forced to confront it directly (as I wrote about in a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death) and for a time entirely lost my ability to deny my death would happen. Yet even then my fear of death would rise up to overwhelm me only in response to a trigger, in the moments I felt ill in some way: an unexplained pain here, an intense bout of nausea or dizziness there; in other words, when some symptom drew my attention to the possibility that something might be seriously wrong and gave rise to an exaggerated sense that my life might be in danger. But even during that period, when I was feeling physically well, my thoughts—and therefore my worry—about death retreated like a tortoise’s head into its shell, my entire being cowering and refusing even to look at the possibility I might cease to be.
So powerful is our connection to life, to ourselves, to our concept of our “self,” that when it feels directly threatened we can do nothing else but think about how to defend it. Yet because it can’t be defended, of course, against death, in the end we can only ruminate about it—or learn to ignore it.
Irvin Yalom in his excellent book Staring at the Sun argues for the possibility of a third alternative: his central thesis is that though death itself may destroy us physically, the idea of death may save us. That is, an acute awareness of our mortality may function to help us live in such a way that makes us happy, may help us avoid wasting time on pursuits for which we’re not well-suited, or in which we have no real interest but in which we engage out of a sense of obligation or guilt; may help us focus on those things that matter to the wise: relationships rather than money and helping others rather than pursuing fame.
He has a good point. Many people who’ve had close encounters with death but escaped its sting have returned from the edge of that cliff changed, with a new set of values and behaviors that genuinely seem to make them—and those around them—happier and more fulfilled. But it’s a tricky balancing act. Others have been thrust toward the same precipice, stared down over it, and managed to back away, but have come away with terrible scars: PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Numerous studies have attempted to figure out what internal characteristics might determine, or at least influence, which direction a person will go after such encounters. Optimists in general fare better than pessimists, but for now that’s about all science has to say, other than the stories we tell ourselves about what happens after death clearly influence our reactions to death a great deal, depending on how thoroughly we believe them. Because no scientifically reproducible proof confirming the truth of any story any of us has ever told ourselves about the afterlife (even the commonly believed ones) has yet been put forth, the degree to which we believe such “after death stories” varies tremendously. One of those stories is certainly true, however: either we (whatever “we” may actually be) continue in some form, or we don’t. But in the absence of proof of life after death, any genuine belief we may have in it owes its allegiance far more to our desire for it to be true than to any objective measure of truth.
All of which has recently led me to wonder if the balance we require in order to live well under the shadow of death would be helped or hindered by our knowing the exact date and time we’re going to die. Even as I write these words, the notion that I’m going to die myself has faded back into intellectual understanding only, from a full three dimensions into at most two (no doubt because I currently feel well—if an unexplained symptom suddenly appeared, I strongly suspect I’d be thrust immediately back into great anxiety), so my ability to imagine how I might react to such knowledge will remain a theoretical, intellectual exercise only (given also, of course, that no such knowledge is possible).
But what I imagine is this: psychologically, we put off thinking about the events of the future quite well. So knowing my death would occur on January 7, 2047, for example, might not instill me with fear (given that such a date feels quite far off), but its concreteness might very well “save” me as Yalom proposes (encouraging me to live as I feel I should, true to myself, whatever that may mean). On the other hand, were I to learn my death is coming on September 3, 2014—well, that feels more like a diagnosis of cancer, like a death sentence. That knowledge, I think, I’d do better without.
Then again, I’m not certain about that either. Some patients of mine who’ve been handed real death sentences—not knowing the exact date they would die but knowing it wouldn’t likely be far beyond six to twelve months—have grappled with this knowledge and somehow emerged at a place of acceptance. On the other hand, such people are the rare exception.
As long as I’m speculating along impossible lines, I wonder if the best of all possible worlds would be this: to gain certain knowledge—certain belief—of the exact day of our demise as long as it lay sufficiently far away enough in the future to motivate us to live wisely and well and true to ourselves, and the closer we came to the date, the less well we’d remember it at all, until not only the knowledge of it but even the memory of ever having known it faded completely away from our awareness just before the point at which knowing it would cause our reaction to shift from living more happily to living more miserably.
The value of these musings isn’t, of course, that any of this is possible, but that imagining how we might react to knowing the exact date we’re destined to die might help us unmask how we really feel about death, whether it’s as we think we feel, or something different.
It’s worth knowing, I think. Motivations and feelings that remain unconscious hide from our best judgments about them. Much pathology results from thoughts and feelings not thoroughly understood on a conscious level, and death looms large as an issue for everyone. It seems to me much might be gained not so much from thinking about death itself but from examining our reactions to it, from setting aside what we presume we feel about it and trying to design thought experiments like the one in this post that provoke reactions that then shed light on the truth about how we actually do.
Next Week: I’ve Achieved My Greatest Dream…Now What?