Death and Desire, Part 1

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I think about death a lot. I contemplate my death intentionally pretty much every day. I drop what I’m doing, silence the clamor of responsibilities and the pressing demands of life, and stare at the inevitability of my own death square in its cold dead face. It’s an exercise with me. You’ll find me regularly, at some point in my day, sitting quietly and alone suspended over the Void.

The Void is our non-existence. It’s the thing we humans fear the most. Actually it’s our only fear, a fear implicit in every other fear, dressed now as anger, then as anxiety, now as some phobia or then as fear of failure or rejection. St. Paul and others zero in on this one fear as the root cause of humanity’s existential predicament, the despair implicit in every addiction and dysfunctional pattern of behavior stemming from our inability to make-meaning (I’m thinking of Marilyn McCord Adams) in the face of our mortality.

Stanford Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry Irvin Yalom has written on ‘Death Anxiety’ in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death). He describes this anxiety as the underlying fear behind our psychoses. Some therapists don’t recognize this. They ignore the more fundamental problem (our inability to construct an enduring meaningful experience for ourselves in the face of our mortality) and end up treating symptoms. For the record, Yalom is an atheist, so we won’t agree on the remedy to the problem. But we agree that the fear of death is the root cause of our existential despair and other psychoses.

I’d like to contrast how atheists/materialists and Christian theists (but any theism that viewed divine reality in benevolent terms will do) employ their respective resources to address the problem of death anxiety. Part of my motivation for exploring this is my own interest in death and death rehearsal (as I’ve practiced it for years). Another part of my interest is an ongoing conversation I enjoy with my brilliant daughter who is both atheist existentialist, licensed therapist and Yalom fan.

What is the Christian theist’s answer to the problem of death anxiety? I can summarize it in a single phrase: Death is overcome in Christ’s resurrection and in unending life in him. Consider two brief biblical passages:

Hebrews 2.14-15: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

1 Corinthians 15.51-54: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.”

In the end, the assurance of an enduring meaningful existence in the risen Christ is the Christian theist’s answer to death anxiety. St. Paul goes so far as to argue that if there is no resurrection, Christians are most grievously to be pitted. Why does death not enslave us in fear and empower all manner of psychoses? Because the power of death is just the threat it poses to our desire for enduring existence, and in Christ (for those who perceive it) this threat is disarmed. Hence, Christ grounds our confidence in our own enduring personal existence. What’s the logic of this consolation? Simply this—that who the risen Christ is is on the inside of who I am. And we can express the same reality conversely: Who I am is on the inside of who the risen Christ is. As St. Paul said, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)

How might a materialist advise someone struggling with death anxiety? To begin with, materialism can offer no hope of enduring personal existence. When we die, we’re gone. We cease to ‘be’. That is the materialist eschatology. This fact gives rise to our death anxiety. What might the materialist offer to remedy this dread?

One possible approach would be to convince us to dismiss death anxiety as irrational, i.e., a fear not based in any real threat to our meaning or existence. But this is not possible on materialist grounds. Death is a real, not an imagined, threat to our meaning and existence. So there’s no dismissing death anxiety as irrational on materialist grounds.

But a materialist might suggest (as some have to me) that we reform desire, namely reform the desire that empowers death anxiety in the first place, viz., the desire for permanence. The answer to death anxiety is to teach ourselves not to desire more than this life can offer. On what basis would we accomplish this? It is accomplished by exposing the desire for permanence as a survival mechanism required by pre-modern, less evolved unenlightened minds. In our distant past, our survival depended upon crude technologies that exposed us to greater risks (say, when hunting), the desire for permanence grounded a fear of dying sufficient to motivate our taking the needed risks to survive. But this same desire today is irrational in light of the technological advances of modern, enlightened society. Death anxiety is the left over residue in our pre-modern, less evolved brains. But today we have it in our power to dispel the fear associated with our more animalistic selves and to not be threatened by the truth that this life is all we have.

A third materialist strategy recognizes something legitimate about the desire to endure beyond our own deaths, and so it offers (as Yalom does) the present consolation to be had from the knowledge that our lives will in fact endure in their effects, what Yolam calls ‘rippling’. Our contributions to the lives of those who survive us and their difference to the world (however large or small) is sufficient to assuage any anxiety we might feel over the inevitability of our non-existence. We may not personally endure in any subjective sense, but we shall endure objectively in the minds of loved ones and in the significance of the contributions which our having lived made to the world. On a materialist view, this is all we have, but it’s sufficient grounds upon which to live a fulfilled existence free from the fear of death as the experience of many a materialist testifies.

This may seem bold, but I think we must dismiss this third materialist strategy. Why? For the simple reason that cosmically speaking, the entire universe (all our enduring effects included) has a life expectancy as well. It all ends in a big freeze or heat death. But it ends all the same. To suggest that death anxiety can be alleviated by contemplating the abiding effects of our having lived in the lives of those who survive us is just to ignore the material (no pun intended) point. Those effects die just the same as we do. The consolation in this case is utterly vacuous. It does nothing to relieve our fear of death to know that our memory will endure for a few generations before eventually dying the same death we die.

This leaves us with what seems to me to be the only consistent materialist strategy for dealing with death anxiety—abandon the desire for permanence which is the root cause of death anxiety to begin with.

I’ll leave it there for now.

(Picture here.)

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6 comments on “Death and Desire, Part 1

  1. Jamila Oden says:

    “I think about death a lot. I contemplate my death intentionally pretty much every day. I drop what I’m doing, silence the clamor of responsibilities and the pressing demands of life, and stare at the inevitability of my own death square in its cold dead face. It’s an exercise with me. You’ll find me regularly, at some point in my day, sitting quietly and alone suspended over the Void.” – how do you explain this? Why is it an exercise? I’m not knocking it – on the contrary, I think it’s an excellent exercise! I think Yalom would agree with me. I think there is value in it because it forces you to reflect on the finiteness of life. Death reminds us to live!
    Also, I urge you not to abandon Yalom’s point about rippling. Our lives are meant to be spent with others. It’s a relational life. I know you’d say something here like, “Exactly Jamila! The only relationship that matters is the one with God!”. I disagree. People go to counseling because of relationships. Failed relationships, love, abuse, family, friends, marriage, work – it’s all about relationships. And yes, everyone I know and everyone my kids will ever know will one day be dead. Life as I know it will end. The world one day will end. But that’s a very long time from now. I accept that my life is a blip here in the universe – maybe 80 or 90 years total? But it’s rewarding to know that as a therapist I am able to help people and make even a small difference in their lives. I can teach Tommy how to be a good man and I smile thinking about him loving on his own children one day. This is comforting and it gives meaning to my day.
    Here’s something Yalom says in Staring at the Sun (half way through it now, so I’m sure I’ll have more comments to share soon!): “The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost”. Does any part of that ring true to you? Let’s say Heaven awaits us and we will live with God for eternity. Is there any part of you though that will miss this life here? Do you agree that when you die you loose out on something? On relationships and experiences here? Or does that not touch you at all?
    I don’t think we can abandon the desire for permanence – well maybe, I don’t know. I don’t even know if that’s a worthwhile argument or pursuit. Who says we should do that? I think the trick is accepting that we are mortal, life is a gift and it’s finite, and living with as few regrets as possible. Embracing this idea frees you to live a life worth living.

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  2. tgbelt says:

    Hi love,

    I explain the exercise just as you noted, as a way to focus on what’s truly valuable and live as honestly as I can. I agree that Yalom would affirm this sort of exercise.

    I wouldn’t want to knock his point about rippling either. I affirm it because I believe in the truly enduring nature of our relationships. What I question is whether Yalom as a materialist has the resources to support rippling as a way to affirm the ‘enduring’ nature of relationships. In other words, since even the (rippling) effects of our lives come to nothing eventually, what consolation is rippling? Rippling is supposed to be of some consolation in the face of death. What happens to the consolation once we realize the same death that brings us to nothing also devours the rippling effects of our lives? See what I’m asking?

    I totally agree our lives are meant to be spent with others and that life is essentially relational. I just don’t know how a ‘materialist’ like Yalom gets this off the ground. On a materialist view of things, the relations of love you’re describing are simply how matter/energy operates on a complex level under the physical laws of the universe. The love you have for Tommy reduces to impersonal sub-atomic particles doing what impersonal laws of physics tells them to do. So exactly what is it that gives the sub-atomic particles you call “Tommy” a personal meaning, something that’s worth valuing more than impersonal particles per se?

    You said “It’s all about relationships” and I totally agree. What I’m wondering is, given materialism WHEN does it become all about relationships (because it’s not all about relationships and love at a sub-atomic level, or a molecular level, or any other level less than the sort of conscious level on which you and I find ourselves in love)? WHEN do particles operating under the laws of physics become love worth enjoying?

    You said you’re “not sure we can abandon the desire for permanence.” But materialism is just the view that we are not permanent. You’re a materialist, right? So you’re committed to the impermanence of all things.

    I’ll get back to ya on the Yalom quote.

    Dad

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    • Jamila Oden says:

      Oh no, here we go again. The Materialism argument again. Ok, so let me try and understand you. Do you not believe in sub-atomic particles? Or neurons? dopamine? SCIENCE?! I kid. What are you arguing exactly? That God created our consciousness? We humans have a conscious without a divine being? I’m confused.

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  3. nelsonct says:

    I’m a Christian and as such I believe in the resurrection of the dead. However, I know that I might be mistaken in my believes and that death could be my ultimate end. So, I have made the choice to live my life imitating Jesus and worshipping God. And if it so happens that there’s nothing after death, then so what?

    I’ve also thought of the possibility that instead of Heaven or non-existence after death there’s actually eternal suffering. Sort of like the ending of Stephen King’s Revival, where the afterlife turns out to be a Lovecraftian hell for every soul. And I decided that even if that turns out to be true, I would still resolve to live like Jesus and worship His God. And I believe it is the Holy Spirit that enables me and gives me the courage to think about these matters and confront them without fear. But even if I am mistaken, so what?

    Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, now and forever, for ages and ages. Amen.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Jamila,

      Yes, same old conversation! ;o) We can carry it on when we’re next together if you want. No rush. Don’t have to do it here.

      Basically I’m saying that whatever a person’s view of reality is, they only have the resources of that view to draw on. You’re a materialist (last we talked). That’s your fundamental worldview. Matter and energy is all that exists. There’s no room in your view of reality for immaterial beings (angels or gods) or the existence of ‘spirit’ or anything which isn’t a sub-atomic particle or made of sub-atomic particles. See?

      On a materialist view, all complex systems (like cars, buildings, woolly mammoths, and human beings) are composed of the same fundamental buildings blocks (sub-atomic particles). Those particles are your resources. They’re all you got to go on in constructing meaning. So I’m wondering WHERE you get the things you describe as personal meaning and value, loving relations, etc. You can only say a human being means what your resources as a materialist will allow you to say, and on materialism those particles possess no personal value or existential meaning (that we know of).

      So when you say “It’s all relational,” I’m wondering where within your materialism did you got that, because given your materialism it’s definitely NOT all ‘relational’ in the personal-meaningful sense you mean. It’s all non-relational, impersonal, unconscious, valueless-in-any-existential-sense particles. Even consciousness on your view can only be a property of unconscious particles of matter. So to me you’re using words (love, personal, relational, existential) I don’t know the ‘materialist’ meaning of.

      I obviously believe in sub-atomic particles and dopamine. But unlike you, that’s not ALL I believe in. But never mind me. For now I’m just trying to understand how you ground the meaning of your personal, loving, existential values in the very limited resources of your materialism.

      Does that help?

      Tom

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