Monday, December 17, 2018

Facing the Reality of Death: Angst, Exhilaration, and Solace

(c) Charles D. Hayes

I’ve been working on a forthcoming book for 2019 titled: Blue Bias: A Former Cop Rethinks Policing and Deadly Force and haven’t posted on this blog in almost a year, although I do post short pieces frequently on Facebook.  I wrote the piece below my sixties and now I am half way through my seventies and this essay that is from my book Existential Aspirations is one of my favorites and I find consolation in rereading it every now and then. So Happy Holidays I hope you find it interesting.

The evidence is pervasive that we are predisposed for illusion. I’m convinced that the best intellectual exhilaration to be had in adulthood is to break the spell. The way psychologist Erich Fromm characterized it, aging, especially after age sixty-five, is a time to live as if living is one’s main business. To do this effectively requires keeping the alternative in perspective while cutting through cultural fantasies and popularized nonsense.

Thinking recently about Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion that life is a loan from death and sleep is the interest we pay on the loan, it occurred to me that forgetfulness qualifies as a reminder of death. Perhaps this is what makes it so irritating. As we age it makes sense that many of us seem more easily annoyed. Forgetfulness, when it becomes increasingly noticeable, is a constant reminder that we are not in control.

Near the end of his own life, Sigmund Freud theorized about his long-held notion of the existence of a universal death instinct. He acknowledged that what most people do about facing death is to shelve the subject and avoid it with distraction. Freud surmised that all living creatures struggle with the opposing forces of life and death. He believed that, more often than not, the death instinct shows itself as varying forms of aggression. Freud’s theory was not well developed and was not well received in academia.

In my view, a far stronger case can be made that a profound conscious and subconscious existential fear of death favors distraction as a means of avoiding thinking about death, period. We occupy ourselves with cards, television, Internet, books, puzzles, sex, religion, mysticism, golf, a hobby—whatever it takes. Both high and low culture, and drama in particular, provide blissful escape and perhaps a vicarious but subtle method for dissipating our aggression through our imagination, as we sidestep thoughts of our own mortality. Although distraction appears to ease one’s immediate angst, in the long run it ratchets up anxiety that can readily turn into despair of the worst kind, “despair unaware that it’s despair”—as Søren Kierkegaard defined it. So, in effect, the advantage of distraction is more apparent than real.

Deep into my sixties, and despite the above, I now find more and more people willing to discuss the notion of their own death. Through this, I’ve come to believe that there is also a positive side to counter the dread of nonexistence that has the potential to show itself nearly as frequently as the negative reminders like forgetfulness. Trouble is, almost no one speaks about the affirmative side. I’m confident that I’m not the only person who has such experiences. There are times, for example, when the music I’m listening to sounds better than it should be possible for music to sound. The same feeling occurs with the endorphin rush of comprehension that comes from reading a particularly inspiring passage in a book or watching an actor or actress in the delivery of a brilliant performance. Similar feelings occur with other sights, sounds, and even odors that seem more pronounced than ever before. These occurrences are moments of intense clarity and exhilaration. They appear as if in bold capital letters, italicized, and underlined. True, they are fleeting, but they’re no less powerful for it. The impression on my memory is like an asterisk on the experience. I may or may not recall it exactly as it happened, but what matters most is that it did happen and left me with the optimistic expectation that it might happen again.

I’m at a loss to explain these experiences. They are describable only as existential exclamation points—a vivid sense of awareness accentuated with a hint of urgency, part lament, and part celebration. For a long time, I thought these incidents were something other than what William James discusses in The Varieties of Religious Experience, or what Abraham Maslow describes in Peak Experiences, but now I’m not so sure. The example closest to my own experience that I recall reading about is philosopher Brian Magee’s emotional elation while listening to the music of Gustav Mahler, a moment he recounts in Confessions of a Philosopher. It’s not surprising, though, that there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the brighter side of gazing into the abyss, simply because of the common practice of vigorously avoiding the subject.

Mingled with these highlighted experiences are memories of events that didn’t seem so special to me when they occurred but that now give rise to a sense of regret that I may not experience them again. Such memories might be the mesmerizing sound of crickets on a warm summer night and June bugs buzzing under a streetlight, fireflies sparkling like embers in deep woods, the smell of freshly plowed earth, a sudden, blissfully cool downdraft of air preceding a thunderstorm on a hot summer day, the crisp smell of the coming winter in late fall. These are all exclamation points not fully appreciated until the chance of their being repeated is threatened by want of time.   

I’m beginning to suspect that all the meaningful knowledge that prompts people to write books, give lectures, and make movies is a simple thread of fleeting experience that can only be grasped in brief flashes of insight. The effect of these moments is so profound that we intuitively spend the rest of lives in search of more, often without even knowing for sure what it is that we are pursuing. Thus, for many people, meaningful experience has a way of becoming the Holy Grail of their existence, often without their ever realizing it as such.        

The longer we live and the more our friends and family members precede us in death, the more profound I suspect is our awareness of our own mortality and the more aware we are of our being aware. It’s sort of like a stage actor who’s observing herself acting but not worrying about how well she’s doing. Having seen the Discovery Channel’s series about climbing Mt. Everest, I liken the experience of acknowledging the short time ahead to trekking at high altitude and seeing the summit in plain sight. It represents the end. The clearer the end becomes, the more sensitive we are to everything in our midst, and we can be grateful that the air is too thin at this level to sustain much pretension. Strewn about below is a lifetime of memories petitioning to be measured against expectation-- routine and mundane daily experiences interspersed with moments of high drama that turned days into weeks and weeks into years.

Our decades are stacked up like chapters in a novel that lacks a definitive plot; some sections seem as though they belong in the book of a stranger. “Auld Lang Syne” rings in our ears, honoring old acquaintances long forgotten. Images reappear in our mind’s eye, the haunting faces of the elders we knew when we were young. These are the folks who died out of sight and out of mind, but as we near our own death, we find ourselves wondering what happened to them and how and when they passed away. We recall events that seemed critical and profoundly important at the time, that don’t matter at all now, as well as matters that once seemed trivial but are no longer. All those unpleasant memories of occasions we would rather forget come to mind, too, along with those satisfying experiences we wish we could remember more clearly.

One of the things that I find most regrettable in imagining my own demise is the reality of the generation break. The fact is that the memories I have connecting my life to my grandparents will be lost forever. Sure, I can tell my son and granddaughter about the objects I’m leaving behind that belonged to my grandparents; I can even explain how and why they are so special to me, but the meaningfulness won’t be the same. For me, this is an unshakable existential regret.   

Still, so many questions remain unanswered. Has our life been successful? By whose standards do we judge? What of our legacy? Do we actually have one? Would we know it if we didn’t have one, or recognize it as a legacy if we did? What is there left to do that we still might accomplish? If we had our life to do over again, would it be worth the effort? Would it be worth reliving eternally? What would we do differently? Have we learned enough about living to lay down good memories in the present without wishing we could redirect the scenes? An ending is required to put our story in perspective, and yet our very nature dictates that doing so will always seem premature. 

Perhaps, with the summit in sight, we can imagine that upon our shoulders rests the mountainous weight of all our earthly problems, and, upon our demise, these will lift away like a spring mist. Then maybe we can dissolve some of the angst of our predicament. Moreover, the same can be said of our discomfort about nonexistence and any aggression we may secretly harbor. So, even though Freud was probably mistaken about the death instinct, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

As the aging and openly communicative baby-boom generation makes its way to the peak, I suspect there will be a lot of discussion about subjects that earlier generations chose to leave on the shelf. Based upon my own experience, I think that in avoiding such topics our predecessors cheated themselves out of something constructive that only comes with a harsh dose of reality and the desire for perspective. Better to do as Emerson and Schopenhauer suggested: look death in the eye and refuse to blink. Near the summit, the air is clearer, and one can be more objective than ever before. Although enough air to maintain the routine of daily life is lacking, available still is a panoramic, big-picture view that seeks comprehension, rationalization, and justification. It yields no great secrets; instead, it reveals a more realistic view of the way the world is, not as we’ve wished it to be or thought that it was when we were young. The power of this elevated viewpoint is that it enables us to observe layer upon layer of nonsense we have constructed with the help of our culture for reasons that may suddenly seem inconceivable. 

This view may be one reason it’s possible to experience moments of sharp sensory perception, when music can sound better than we’ve ever suspected possible. It’s a kind of clarity of contrasted experience, part bittersweet sorrow because life is passing, and part celebration for having had the privilege of living.

This kind of perception arises in similar fashion to Alan Watts's “backwards law,” which says, when you let yourself relax in the water, you don’t sink as you would expect; instead you float. It’s an unencumbered observer phenomenon unavailable to those whose thirst for security is never satiated. Watts said, “Belief clings, but faith lets go.” Counterintuitive as it sounds, I believe that, just as aging makes our lack of influence over the future more and more self-evident, the letting go of our personal involvement with the world enables us to see and think clearly enough to do something that might have lasting consequences. This may be what prompted life-stage researcher Erik Erikson to observe that wisdom is a product of “involved disinvolvement,” and why some aging citizens achieve a sense of “grand-generativity” as a generous and broadly felt sense of goodwill intended as an aspiration for posterity.  

On the dark side, though, are the many people among the living whose daily existence is but one excruciating health catastrophe after another, not to mention those who die young and those who experience premature senility. For persons living in constant pain, with relief coming only from stupor-inducing drugs, who can blame them for despairing about the mention of exhilaration and aging together in the same sentence? I think of people in this circumstance when I encounter the New Age nonsense, so often pitched in self-help books, with its empty platitudes and cliché-ridden slogans about how wonderful everything is. When I compare these mindless assertions with Schopenhauer’s example of the feelings among animals while one is being eaten by another, the bubble comes back toward the center.

Then there is the late Ernest Becker’s award-winning book, The Denial of Death. Becker argued that if we were to dwell on it too much, the precariousness of our own mortality would drive us insane. He may have been right. But too much shelter from reality also yields deleterious effects. Near the summit, the perspective is grand, unless, fearing the inevitable, one refuses to look. To perceive of life metaphorically above the fray of everyday concerns offers a chance for taking up philosophy, as Thomas Ellis Katen suggests in Doing Philosophy, in order “to get out of the unremitting rain of unreflected-upon information.” But philosophy, as Socrates demonstrated, and as many philosophers since have claimed, is also about learning how to die. The view on high is clear because there is plenty of time and space for the practice of sheer, unfettered observation and contemplation. Taking in the view from this level is unique in that after a lifetime of arguing about what is and isn’t of value, it suddenly becomes clear—real value is not what we thought it was.

In the spirit of Schopenhauer, Becker wrote in The Denial of Death, “Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism’s comfort and expansiveness.” A bit harsh, I think. Speaking for myself, I would rather have the chance to appear as a stain in the pit than not, and I bet I could find lots of folks who would agree with me that there have been some fine moments on our way to the compost heap. 

            More than three decades ago, physicist Stephen Hawking postulated that the existence of black holes means that all information in the universe will ultimately end. Recently he changed his mind. Now he argues that the end will come only to information in galaxies where black holes exist. This kind of logic is probably as close as we will ever get to why some people seem to live charmed lives and others live in perpetual misery. It happens sometimes but not always. So, it doesn’t take a lot of life experience for observant individuals to conceive that for human beings there are many things worse than death and that both good and ill must be considered and weighed constantly to keep one’s perspective.

Of course, simply trying to wrap one’s mind around metaphysical mysteries like time and space being interchangeable, or the unfathomable notion of space as infinite, or, as the Theory of Relativity suggests, past, present, and future, coexisting simultaneously, could drive us mad if we thought we had to reduce these matters to a realm of concrete understanding before we die. Contemplating these mysteries, I suspect, is analogous to the living brain trying to comprehend its own nonexistence—the very act of doing so is a metaphysical violation of causality.

We appear to be wired to shelter ourselves from too much reality. In Wings of Illusion, psychologist John F. Schumaker argues that we should think it worthwhile to determine a proper degree of illusion as a psychological shelter, but to be very careful about not overdoing it. Recall his epigraph at the beginning of this essay. If we are truly honest with ourselves, our predisposition to believe the unbelievable becomes exceptionally clear near the summit. From here, we can see the distraction for what it is and not be nearly as distraught as expected.

Another key to understanding the exhilaration possible in facing death is that when we begin to tweak with our beliefs near the code level of our biological wiring, haphazardly tripping over endorphins is not unusual. In other words, contemplating existential matters at high altitude is pleasurable by design. Schumaker says further that culture absorbs the chaos and “manufactures the stupidity that we need in order to function in this world.” Not surprisingly then, when we begin to figure this out during the existential deliberation that comes naturally with aging, a sense of suddenly seeing through illusions without the usual dread can be enthralling. As it turns out, looking death in the eye trips a pleasure circuit. Neurological testing reveals that when we contemplate death directly, our brain responds by activating positive information to compensate. 

We are all familiar with the process of meeting overwhelmingly bad news with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance that presumably evolves into a stoic resolve. But for many of us, age catches up-- like the frog in hot water that begins to boil before he can escape—and by the time we awaken enough to see the summit in plain view, it is much too late to deny our mortality. There is nothing to bargain about. Time is short. And furthermore, nothing is to be gained from fear and depression but the possibility of missing a last chance to make some subjective sense of it all. Simply stated, the last chapters of life require some graduate- level thinking to ensure that we’ve fully checked in before we check out.

A determined effort to develop our perspective from a philosophical position near the end of life may well result in some of the best times we ever have. Such effort has the potential for having a lasting effect on whatever legacy we leave behind, provided there are no black holes in the neighborhood and there is new grass to cover the pit. The payoff from thoughtful reflection is the ability to see through the nonsensical distractions that are detrimental to civilization and our progeny’s future. Exclamation points are where you find them, and when you really start to pay attention because time is short, the rewards are exhilarating. One final but pleasurable thought on the quandary of death. Perhaps, if Einstein was right about the coexistence of past, present and future, the worst that can happen to us is to be lost in time. Thoughts?    

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  2. Re:
    "memories of events that didn’t seem so special to me when they occurred but that now give rise to a sense of regret that I may not experience them again. ...not fully appreciated until the chance of their being repeated is threatened by want of time."

    I recently chanced upon a reflection of Paul Goodman's, rather overwrought but also describing accurately something that has happened to me several times, beginning already around age 18:

    "First, he weeps when he attends to something of pure and simple beauty that suddenly surprises him. ... Such things, when they occur surprisingly, bring tears to his eyes, and he may even softly weep. The sequence is as follows: because the object is beautiful, promissory of pleasure and giving pleasure, he allows it to come close to himself and then, at the surprising turn to something still simpler and more resolving, he has had neither the time nor the inclination to guard against it; he is surprised and touched. Feeling rises, and the feeling that rises is—unexpectedly—weeping. Why is this?

    Such beauties are the signs of paradise; experiencing them is an activity of paradise. But paradise is lost. So the tears are, after all, tears not of joy but of loss. It is his own hurt self that he is weeping for, because now, in these special circumstances, his persistent misery is confronted with an actual loss that he believes in. On reflection, we can understand why it is precisely an object of beauty that can get behind, or under, the habitual defenses of intelligence. The experience of beauty is preconceptual; it moves between sensory presentness and a meaning coming into being, not yet ridigly defined. Experience of beauty is prior to the separation that a man makes between his present pleasure—which is meaningless, because he does not fully give himself to it—and his general conception of what would "really" satisfy him, which he does not believe, because it is merely a thought. But the tangible present object stands, as part for whole, for a tangible lost object, and he weeps. But it is only an object of beauty, whose meaning he again gathers and inteprets, and his soft weeping dries before it deepens to orgastic sobbing."

    ("On the intellectual inhibition of explosive grief and anger", in Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals)

    I find these moments have their own unique quality, very different from death-anxiety, distraction, or flow. They are indeed "tears not of joy but of loss." It makes sense, actually, that the first few of these were the most intense: "loss" is a new concept to a young person. I suppose acclimation to loss could lead to an evener keel, or it could leave us jaded and numb.