We’re all going to die.

June 17, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

On Monday June 23rd at 6pm I’ll be chairing ‘Let’s Talk about Death’ featuring Writer Will Self, Philosopher Stephen Cave and Anthropologist Joanna Cook. This event is the fourth in our series of six on reconceiving spirituality, which is part of a larger Social Brain Centre  project on Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. We have completed public events on Spirituality, The Body, The Soul and, now, Death (though it’s not yet the end!..). We have also been busy with research behind the scenes, and our final report on the project is scheduled for publication in September. For now, some thoughts on death ahead of Monday…

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The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man (Ernest Becker 1973).

There is no easy way to say this, but we’re all going to die. I don’t mean ‘we’ in a diffuse generic sense, but you, me, and everyone we know and love. We’re all going to die.

I’m not saying this to spoil our day. There is a beautiful summer glow outside in central London, I’ve just enjoyed a tasty biscuit from a friendly office colleague and I’m listening to some beautiful Indian classical music as I write this for you.

But the more I try to make sense of what drove me to devise and lead this ongoing RSA project on spirituality, the more I feel drawn to the evasion of our mortality. If spirituality is worth trying to refashion, reclaim or redeem, it is not because society needs an obscure touchstone for anti-rational sentiment or facile self-love. Nobody can claim sovereignty on an essentially contested idea, but if our shared composite reference point – ‘spirituality’- is going to grow beyond its ambient nebulousness, and speak to the non-religious at a visceral level, then it has to connect directly to the most fundamental feature of human life: the fact that it ends.

I reflected on this idea in Taking Spirituality Seriously, an essay for New Humanist, which I wrote shortly after the untimely death of our dearly departed colleague Emma Lindley:

“For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. Our shared recognition of a brute existential reality brings us back to our common humanity. Life as such is precious to all of us, but our experience of it becomes more visceral, shared, and tangible when it is threatened, as witnessed for instance in the solidarity and kinship widely experienced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters….”

I go on to introduce the distinction between our ground and our place that stems from Buddhism and various existentialist philosophers, which I think illustrates why spirituality speaks to a part of us that ethics or aethetics cannot.

“By our ground I mean the most basic facts of our existence: that we are here at all, that we exist in and through this body that somehow breathes, that we build selves through and for others, that we’re a highly improbable part of an unfathomable whole, and of course, that we will inevitably die. Another way to characterise the relevance of our ground comes from the psychotherapist Mark Epstein who refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’

As anybody who has faced a life threatening illness will know, reflecting on our ground heightens the importance of not postponing our lives, of using the time we have for what really matters to us. And yet, research on the main regrets of the dying indicates the sad fact that we rarely actually do this – most of us do in fact postpone our lives.

And why? Because the world perpetuates our attachment to our place, by which I mean our constructed identities, our fragile reputations, our insatiable desires. We get lost in our identification with our place, and all the cultural signifiers of status that come with it: our dwellings, our salaries, our clothes, our Twitter followers. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”

The Denial of Death

“What we think of as secularity is still sacred, for our secular obsessions are symptomatic of our spiritual need.” – David Loy

That New Humanist piece was first drafted about a year ago, and since then I have been enjoying the work of the brilliant theorist David Loy who builds on the ideas of Ernest Becker and Otto Rank to make sense of how various human pursuits; Religion, Sex, Money and Fame especially, arise from what he calls ‘ontological guilt’ – the deep sense of ‘lack’ we feel – that nagging sense that our self is just an illusion, that we are completely contingent, and by no means as real as we feel we ought to be. For Loy, the individual and cultural disavowal of death is a key part of this process, because the unbearable reality of our own inevitable extinction compounds the sense of not being altogether real and leads us to make ourselves feel real through our acts.

Politically speaking, that means warfare, empire building and – more recently – our collective fetishisation of economic growth. These organising principles of the exterior of human life can be thought of as a socio-economic manifestation of our deep interior need to feel real; but the brute fact of death shows such projects to be a kind of confidence trick. For Loy, a Buddhist, the solution lies in living more fully not by unconsciously trying to evade death, but by consciously embracing life’s precious fragility.

As Arthur Koestler once put it: “If one looks with a cold eye at the mess man has made of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been afflicted by some built-in mental disorder which drives him towards self-destruction.”

One feels he is joking at some level, but it’s a dark joke because it’s hard to disagree.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Finally, and more positively, reflecting on death appears to have a life affirming effect(from a draft literature review by Andres Fossas):

Literature on near-death experiences and post-traumatic growth suggests that close encounters with death, and with other events entailing similar psychological upheavals, are often referred to as “spiritual catalysts” that can result in surprisingly positive outcomes for the individual. Those who report near death experiences by either coming close to dying or actually reaching clinical death describe profound shifts in deeply-held views. The most common shifts are characterized as: greater appreciation for life, concern for others, acceptance of death/mortality, concern for meaning, heightened sense of spirituality, lack of concern for materialism and impressing others.

Relatedly, Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse, distilled the five most common regrets of dying individuals from numerous first-hand accounts:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

Death is no simple matter, and who knows what our wonderful speakers will say at Monday’s event, or how the audience will react.

Personally, two questions are foremost in my mind:

First, as I argued in April, whatever you think of Christianity, Easter does offer a particularly resonant story of death and resurrection. Even if you don’t believe the story is literally true, the heart of the Christian religion can be seen as a response to death anxiety, and it appears to speak to millions. Can we imagine atheistic or secular equivalents – myths or rituals of equivalent power?

Second, I am keen to better understand a curious and somewhat paradoxical fact. Those who come close to death appear to live fuller lives afterwards as a result, and yet all of us already know (d0n’t we?) we are going to die and don’t have any kind of transformative response? What’s that about? Does the fear of death get too diluted throughout the lifespan to have an impact? Do we need a reminder? Is that what spiritual practice is about?

Join us on Monday to talk about death.

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Some links:

Stephen Cave’s Ted Talk: The Four Stories we Tell ourselves about Death

Film trailer: The Quest for Immortality 

A breezy and quite amusing ‘shot of awe’ by Jason Silva of Ernest Becker’s famous work in 2.41 minutes.

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