I spent probably the first half of my life in one or another state of acute fear. Due to a variety of circumstances, one of them asthma, I came to know the fear of imminent death. It was so visceral, so primordial and pre-verbal, it still defies description for me. I can fully understand why someone would do almost anything to make that feeling stop and to live his life as if death were someone else’s problem.
But over the years, as I’ve gotten healthier, I’ve become less and less afraid. I don’t believe that was just because of my improved physical state. There were at least a few times that I thought death was possible if not within proximity. On looking back, it seems to me that the process actually worked in reverse. I think I became healthier because I became less afraid. In particular, I became less afraid of death.
One reader, Synduatic, implied that a good portion of our well being stems from our ability to meet death. He paraphrased a few great thinkers who concluded that to avoid death was to avoid a free life:
A rich philosophical tradition, to which you gave passing reference, surrounds these ideas, too. Plato said that philosophy is a meditation on and a preparation for death; Seneca said that he or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery; and Montaigne said that to philosophize is to learn how to die.
I had to agree. He pointed to a deep fracture in the American psyche because there is no culture that shuns death (or suffering) the way ours does. And what we shun, we fear. And what we fear controls us.
This resistance is so pervasive, that death itself surprises us even though, as we can all agree, we’ve all been dying since time began. Tunnel-visioned this way, we behave illogically, as if with just one more pill or one more wave of research or one more face lift, we could somehow skip the last stop on the line. On his blog, a bemused Terry Roberts recalls one 90-year old woman who found out she was very ill and would soon be dying. Stunned, she said, “How could this happen to me? Just bad luck I guess.”
Richard Heffner (on the PBS series, The Open Mind) alluded to what may be one of the many reasons we resist death the way we do in the United States. Its very nature has changed over the last forty or fifty years. Where at one time a stroke would have been the end point of a life, that point has become an interminably elongated line with a perpetually retreating horizon. Due to the entrenchment of chronic disease, he writes, the “possibilities for a gentle closure of life are often overwhelmed by uncontrolled physical pain, excessive financial burden, unresponsive care plans, and emotional isolation.”
He goes on to underline that with the following: “There has developed in contemporary culture a profound dread of death and the process of dying.”
I’d like to take it a step further. My observation is that we don’t just fear death, nor do we just ignore it by housing our dying in group homes or hospitals. Out of unprecedented decades of comfort in this country, we simply refuse it. It is the most systematic—and systemic—delusion in world history.
And if what Synduatic says is true—that spiritual and physical health are built on an acceptance of our mortality—then we are either forced to redefine health or remake ourselves in our own distorted images.