Good Life, Good Death

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.

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