The only way to learn from the reaper is to accept he's there
No one knows exactly when, but as the old song says, everybody's gotta go sometime. Indeed, 155,000 people die on the planet every day -- from famine, illness, violence, war, neglect, accidents, bad judgment, and old age. While death is a voyage that awaits us all, not everyone gets the same noisy sendoff when they depart. Compare the frenzy earlier this year around the demise of the pope and Terri Schiavo with Americans' relative ignorance of the rising body count in Iraq. The fact is that we live in an era simultaneously obsessed with death and in denial about it -- a paradox that affects us all. We hope this section will give readers a chance to think about how to balance the fear of dying with its power to make us better at the art of living. -- The Editors
Hello, Laine?' my doctor's voice sang out cheerily from the answering machine, 'Your test results came back today and it looks like you have a growth on your pancreas. Give a call if you have any questions. Hope you have a great afternoon!'
Did I have questions? Since pancreatic cancer is medical jargon for 'goner,' I had several: What kind of growth? What would happen next? And how could I have a possibly fatal diagnosis? Dying, after all, is for the bit players in our tightly scripted lives. You and I, dear reader, the stars of the romantic comedies airing nightly in our imaginations, will never die.
On one level we know that isn't true, of course. Humans are gifted with the ability to contemplate their own demise, and this weird blessing infuses every moment of life with the inevitability of death. That said, we're remarkably good at making our date with death seem so far away we doubt we'll have to keep it. If an event pierces our defenses and makes our mortality vivid, we quickly return to living as we usually live, as if the odds against death are stacked in our favor.
To deny death, for all its initial comfort (unless you're a Russian novelist), is to deny an essential part of life. Throughout the ages, students of the human condition have suggested that reconciling ourselves to death can open a window into our deepest nature, and only by accepting death will we lead a truly fulfilling life. And what happens if we don't? The answer to that question could have special importance in an age of terror attacks and preemptive war -- the cultural equivalents of bad news from the doctor.
At 29, I've had my shot at wrestling with these issues. My parents gifted me with a genetic disorder that, according to the medical elite (except my optimistic acupuncturist), will take me down short of the normal span. I co-parented a beloved boxer dog who, within a week of being asked to write this piece (as if on some cosmic cue), died of a massive heart attack in his apparent prime. My father also died too young. By the end, holding his purple hand, I could see tumors rising up beneath his skin, an image that brings to mind what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi reportedly said about his terminal cancer: 'Well, it wants to live, too.'
Most people aren't so calm in the face of 'mortality salience' -- modern science-speak for the moments when we realize death awaits us. According to studies, pointed reminders of death are more likely to trigger unsavory behaviors, including a puritanical conformism that drives us to defend our worldview and to punish others who threaten it -- if only in our minds. Curiously, an awareness of death also drives us to seek out ways to bolster our self-esteem. Researchers say that even little ways of feeling better about ourselves (like flattery or shopping) are strangely effective in lulling us back into forgetting our ultimate fate.
Some say our efforts to manage the terror of death can be used to explain a range of human activity, from the rise of culture and religion to American patriotic fervor after the attacks on 9/11. As noted by Kate Douglas in New Scientist magazine (Aug 28, 2004), not all researchers buy what is known as 'terror management theory,' or TMT, 'but nobody doubts that we do react in interesting ways when confronted with death.'
Long before Western science got interested, mystics and sages have sought to live well with our mortality, tapping its potential to liberate our better traits while sidestepping its equally potent ability to turn us into rigid creeps. From death anxiety and its contradictions, 'the most sublime, creative, and spiritually uplifting aspects of our nature emerge,' says Daniel Liechty, a theology and peace studies scholar and a professor of social work at Illinois State University, quoted in Science & Spirit (March/April 2005). But that's also from where 'the most primitively reactive, paranoid, and violent aspects of our nature emerge.' The Zen master's equanimity with his fatal disease springs from a centuries-old discipline of clear-eyed gazing at the frightened self's response to its annihilation. And Zen is only one of many traditions, religious and secular, that have sought to teach us how to deal with death.
As the tragic cycle of violence that began with 9/11 enters its fifth year, that event has come to be seen as an entire era's near-death experience. Many would say the result is a world hardened into absolutism, where myopic foreign policy is de rigueur. Instead of encouraging creativity and enlightenment, the fear of death, amplified by the modern media, creates panic as well as political leaders who garner power by promising the kind of psychic safety that only rigid ideology can provide. In other words, we're watching the paradox of death awareness play out on a global scale.
My doctor, it turns out, is prone to hyperbole: the polyp was on my gall bladder, not my pancreas, and it appears benign. With the happy news of my new lease on life, I quickly forgot my medical scare and returned to the comforting distractions of life.
To deny death, some fall back on righteousness, some busy themselves with crucial tasks only the living can do, like trimming cuticles or alphabetizing the condiments in the pantry. A rare few reach peace with death and remain unconcerned by the ego's final erasure.
I'm not one of those people. Life has served me up a lot of loss -- from beloved creatures already gone, to dear friends about to go, to the terrifying thought we all share that today will be the day we get paved over by an errant city bus, and all our chances to eat Oreos, and play with our chocolate Labs, and watch inane TV, and be madly in love, and be intellectually challenged, and be free, and alive, and beautiful, will be gone. I have no idea what to do with this odd knowledge. Any prescription I might offer would be someone else's.
Death is like an unmapped land -- a place our minds can't fully comprehend, but on the perimeters of which we are summoned to both new spiritual depths and sheer terror. Maybe our only call, both for ourselves and for our culture in denial, is to acknowledge this strange tension and learn to live with it. As others have noted, intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at one time. Perhaps living an honest life means having the ability to do the same with death.
Laine Bergeson is assistant editor at Utne.