Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Fear that Defines and Divides Us


(c) Charles D. Hayes
In Staring at the Sun, Irvin D. Yalom, says the gift of self-awareness comes at a high price. “Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die.”

Death anxiety separates us from all the earth’s creatures. We are the only species whose lifelong motivation is subconsciously hijacked in myriad ways to avoid or postpone the inevitability of nonexistence. Death anxiety is the indoctrinating lifeforce of religion and ground zero for the reasons for doing what we do in life. 

Creating art, literature, scientific research and discovery, reading, sports, hobbies, business achievement, and gaining wealth and especially power are all manifestations of a means of pushing back and seeming to close the door the grim reaper is forever threatening to open.

There is mountainous research material in the field of existential psychology that supports mortality salience as being the breach in the dam of the human condition—at the crux of global conflict, and yet, for all practical purposes the subject never gains traction.  

I’ve have written about this human dilemma at great length.  This core humanitarian concern is too often treated like a curious novelty, instead of what it is: humanity’s Achilles Heel, and the subject never achieves momentum in everyday public discourse, even though how it is ultimately dealt with may decide our species survival. 

Strangers, chaos, change, and uncertainty are subconscious reminders of the inevitability of demise, and even the act of forgetting hints of nonexistence. But nothing is quite so toxic and psychologically threatening as the feeling that one is living an unfulfilling life, and this ethos lies at the crux of the political divide in America. Globally millions of people feel threatened by otherness (a metaphorical cousin of nonexistence) many of them need someone to blame for their fears and social contempt works miraculously as a suitable distraction. 

Worse, in some cultures the shelter of submission and losing themselves in a cause produces terrorists, eager to blow themselves up so that in some deranged sense, they can feel that their lives will have mattered. Yalom says his ultimate concerns as a psychiatrist for therapy are: death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom. 

My point is that we are in the grip of an authoritative regime of dogmatists, whose rhetoric for gaining the support of their constituents, fuels the fear that breeds existential angst. When the future seems overtly threatened by otherness, nostalgia replaces hope, hatred becomes common currency, and one’s identity group is suddenly perceived as having been an inadequate shelter from the inevitable. 

We have people these days with enough wealth to spend ten thousand dollars a day for a thousand years and still be rich. That these people are assumed to be acting strictly out of greed is a mistaken assumption. The money they are making, and the power associated with it, is a subconscious means of metaphorically poking a finger in the eye of the grim reaper, it means they are still here, still alive, and that they prevail.  The ultra-rich people fortunate enough to figure this out for themselves, stand out, often by giving away their fortune and by devoting their remaining years to helping their fellow man. 

In the Jan/Feb issue of The Atlantic there is a feature about WeCroak, it’s an app that sends you a notice five times a day that you are going to die. Being the existentialist that I am, I signed up for the cheerful reminders.  I’m curious about the effect of being rudely and randomly informed that I am soon to be toast, and I will let you know what it is like.

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