The dance with death
|The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.|
by John Macbeath Watkins
"To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything," Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death.
I was about seven or eight when I first faced my own mortality.
We were living in the old colonial house we rented in Maine from old Mr. Adams, and my bedroom had a dormer window looking out over the verdant summer landscape. I don't know why it came to me, but I realized that not only would I die some day, I actually had some control over when it happened.
Not that I was suicidal. The fact that I could end my life at will gave me a feeling of control, a feeling that my life was a choice. Having very little notion of anatomy, I rested a pocket knife against my abdomen, relishing the fact that I would not pierce my flesh. I would choose instead to live, to go out into the green, down to the creek to watch the minnows, out to the old oak to climb.
For some reason, the knowledge that I was mortal and that my life was a choice gave me a feeling of significance. And significance is exactly what we need to feel to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.
Some of us attach ourselves to something larger, like a cause of a church that will live on past our lifetimes. Some will procreate, and find meaning in parenting, and carrying on the species. Some will seek to be with people who are like us, and will know us, and give us a feeling that we are significant because we are known.
And some of us write, and try to influence the whole structure of thought that is the realm of meaning, because in the end, meaning is what it's all about. In psychology, all these methods of dealing with our desire to live and the knowledge that we will die is called terror management theory, the study of how we try to feel immortal by establishing meaning in our lives. The desire to live and the awareness of death mean that we spend some large part of our lives, consciously or not, dealing with the terror of death.
But do we all feel the rumble of terror that underlies everything? I think not.
For example, I've known several people who died climbing. I'd gone for a scramble on the rocks with two of them, and they scared me. The kept placing themselves in positions where only their skill lay between and a fall that could severely injure them, even kill them if they landed wrong. In each case, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that they had fallen to their deaths.
The joy of dancing with death seemed to enliven them. This should not be surprising; after all, we never contemplate what we're living for when we are faced with our imminent death.
When my father retired after a career in the Air Force, he felt something was missing. It took about a year for him to sort it out.
It was danger. When he flew in B-17s in World War II, those who completed as many missions as he did in heavy bombers had a loss rate of about 70% killed or missing in action. He told me that when they were gathered for a briefing, and were told about 10% might be lost on that mission alone, every man in the room was thinking, "those poor bastards." None were thinking about their own deaths.
He served through three wars, and even in peacetime, people he worked with were dying every year. Military aviation is just not as safe as flying on an airliner, and practicing the things expected of them killed aviators even in the safest units.
Yes, there are people who fear death. A 2009 Harvard study found that deeply religious people were more likely to ask for heroic measures to keep them alive, and fewer had "do not resuscitate" orders than the general population. Andrea Phelps, a senior medical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the study's lead author, suggested that such people might be more satisfied with life, but that seems unlikely to me.
I think they sought the comfort of religion and heroic measures to preserve their lives for the same reason: A fear of death. Religion offered them assurances, but still the fear remained.
But Becker argued that this is not how most people deal with the problem. Most, he said, attempt an "immortality project," an attempt, rather than relying on the heroic measures of doctors, to do something heroic and eternal.
Humans have a dual nature, their animal bodies and their symbolic selves. In the animal world, there are acts to preserve your life and the lives of those closely related, but these are not heroic in the sense Becker means. Heroic acts, in his framework, are symbolic acts. Heroic acts either make us a part of something eternal or involve us creating something eternal, allowing us to live on past our allotted time on earth.
Becker believed that religion, our traditional hero system, was failing in the age of reason, and that science could never take over that function. He thought we needed new illusions to sustain us.
But that's like seeking to advance medicine by making more potent placebos. In the age of reason, it is difficult to retain any illusions. We need to consciously invent our own meanings, and be aware of how we are embedding ourselves in the structure of thought and the structure of society that carries on beyond our lives.
That means being conscious of how much we are made up of all those who have influenced us, and how much we can influence those who come after us. We must be careful who we are, because that is what lives on when we die.