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Friday, November 18, 2011

This post is about death

Why a post about death on a happiness blog, you might be wondering.

I have 3 words for you: Know Your Enemy.

Death (in all its forms: floating fear of death, incurable disease, grief) can be a threat to happiness. Which is why we should get ourselves educated. As we will see later, bringing our - often mostly unconscious - fear of death to the conscious level can actually be helpful.

Fall* is always a period of reflexion for me; a reflexion about death, among other things.

It all begins on September 11th, when the media is focusing on the 9-11 events. Then, on October 1st, I always have a thought for my deceased father, whose birthday it was. On October 24th, the date he passed away, I am still thinking about him. Then comes Halloween, All Saints' Day, and Remembrance Day. All this time, even mother nature is reminding us of death by preparing for a shut down. The tone is set: death is on my mind.

I do not dismiss this preoccupation. Thinking about death is OK as long as it doesn't prevent you from functioning, and as long as it doesn't make you depressed. (In which unfortunate case you should run like hell in the opposite direction; depression is such an insidious mess!)

As most young people, for the longest time I considered death as a faraway thing, blurry in the horizon. I could easily take it off my mind. But sooner or later, you are reminded that death is in fact part of life, and that no one - not even yourself - will be spared. For me, the first blow was my father's sudden death. I still feel the aftershock whenever an event reminds me of my father's absence: my wedding, my children's birth, important milestones, etc.

I first realized how closely birth and death are interconnected when my first daughter was born, 9 weeks early (and barely 3 pounds). All the time spent in the NICU, surrounded by tiny and/or extremely fragile babies connected to beeping machines, with the constant threat of cardiac arrest or damaging brain hemorrhage, kind of took the magic out of the early moments of life. Right from the moment one is born, death is around, a menacing shadow. You don't always realize it until your child, someone else you know, or even yourself, is clearly in danger.

Allégorie de la mort

It can start on somebody else's plate. Most of us will witness a loved one's death before our own. You might have known all along that death is there, waiting to take each and all of us... you don't really understand what it means until it happens for real. When you lose someone, the ceiling might as well have fallen on your head. You're in disbelief. You knew about death... but so close? And so early?

It's always too early to die.

In the midst of all these reflexions on death, I recently found, at my local video store, a documentary entitled Flight from Death. The Quest for Immortality (by Patrick Shen and Greg Benick). Contrary to what the title might convey, this is NOT a collage of esoteric approaches to death, but rather a very interesting presentation of what research has discovered about the way people deal with the knowledge that they will eventually die, along with mentions of the book which might have been a catalyst to a lot of this research: The Denial of Death (by Ernest Becker).

This documentary begins by showing children playing outside, and a voice saying this in the background:

"To have emerged from nothing. To have a name. Consciousness of self. Deep inner feelings. An excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression. Yet to die."

I am going to try and write down some of the important conclusions the authors came to (relying on extensive research in the field of social psychology). Of course, for a deeper understanding, it is best to watch the documentary in its entirety.

- Human beings are aware (consciously or not) of their own finiteness/mortality, and this in turn generates feelings and behaviors, among which anxiety. It is hard to live with the knowledge that you will eventually die. To soothe those unpleasant feelings, people try to forget, deny and overcome their fear of death.

- Culture is instrumental to this. Culture provides meaning and security even when unspoken. It leads us to believe that part of ourselves will live on, will transcend our individual death. Instead of trying to survive physically, we try to survive symbolically, through our culture. All kinds of customs serve the purpose of relieving our death anxiety. For example: remembrance of the dead, idea of eternal soul, beliefs of immortality (literal or symbolic), accounts of the origins of the universe, religion/spirituality in general, flags, monuments, laws, architecture, consumerism. Heroism would also originate from our fear of death: writing a book, creating a masterpiece, becoming a known athlete, politician, singer, actor... in brief, doing more or better than the average human being distances ourselves from the others, whom we consider merely mortal.

- Human beings rely so much on culture for helping them deal with the knowledge of their mortality that if their culture is threatened, it is a symbolic death, and they cannot tolerate it; it leads to depression or aggression.

- It has been shown that when reminded (even at the unconscious level) of their own death, human beings develop affection toward similar people and hostility toward dissimilar people. Not only do they feel more positive toward people who are similar and more negative toward people who are different, this also affects their actual behavior (eg: they will become more punitive with dissimilar people). This has huge implications, and we see them at play every day, all around the world.

Napoléon sur le champ de bataille d'Eylau, by Antoine-Jean Gros

- When people encounter other, different cultures, those can be a threat to their belief system and claims of immortality. People diffuse the threat by dismissing those cultures or by assimilating them. That feels validating. Sometimes, this annihilation is done by means of violence. The survival greed is such that in order to feel immortal, people need to conquer someone else. This can be done in a socially acceptable way (work promotions, competitive sports), but too often it is done through violence. For some sarcastic depiction of this, read Candide, by Voltaire.

- When you look at it closely, wars might have political and economical pretexts, but it all comes down to ideological reasons. We don't share the same death denying illusion, thus we fight.

- When the real aggressor is not accessible, human beings resort to scapegoating and generalization. They "torment, humiliate, hurt and destroy". They escape death by inflicting it on other people.

Not the most rejoicing findings, I know! But the authors and contributors of this documentary have more in store for us, including some hope and constructive advice:

- We need a way to soothe the reality of life and death, but we also need a way that does not use oppression or violence. Our actions and constructs have to include tolerance and kindness; "A good culture provides opportunities for people to feel good about themselves [...] without harming others".

- Instead of repressing our fear of death, we should bring it to consciousness, and use it to do something positive, to live more fully.

- Affirmations of life help transcend death. Integrity, belonging, growth, improvement, challenges, producing, reproducing, raising and nurturing children, creating (especially when the creation is enjoyed by others) make life meaningful.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

The documentary ends with those words of wisdom:

"I didn't come here by my own will, and I won't leave here by my own will."

"You don't conquer the anxiety, then die. You meet it with courage."

I will come back with more on death, and specifically on grieving, in another post. But until then, we will focus on some lighter, funner discussions.

* I strongly recommend Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà's virtuoso rendition of Glazunov's Autumn, for some blissful listening.

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