My tweets

Collapse )

Inevitable Death: Avoidance, Confrontation, and the Power of Positive Thinking

So why am I obsessed with death? Probably because I really don't want to die.

My mother didn't want to die, but I suspect that was because she was very afraid of dying. She had been raised by a very religious grandmother and she definitely believed in God and an afterlife. I suspect she was so terrified because deep down she believed (or knew) she had done something so terrible that she would be condemned to an eternity in hell.

But I don't believe in God - at least not one in the Abrahamic sense. Or in an afterlife. I believe that when you die, you're dead. Over. Done. That's all folks. Nothingness is not scary. Of course, we all hope to die peacefully. We all would rather not suffer a lingering painful illness or a horrible brutal violent end. And probably most of us have one or two ways we'd really not like to go- fire and being eaten are my two biggies. But wanting to avoid pain and suffering isn't fear, it's just sensible. My opposition to death is not motivated by fear.

The simple truth is that I just want more time. I want to see what happens next. There are still so many places to see, so many things to do, so many books to read. Even 100 years would not be enough. I'd like to see another change of century. I'd like to go to Mars. I'd love to see what technology brings us in the future. I follow closely any news of research into extending human lifespan or solving the normal living decay of age because I'm just not ready to leave this life - not now or when I reach the age my grandmother lived to (90) or ever.

Which brings me finally to the main topic of this entry. When I was in high school/college there was a popular game that made the rounds, called the Forest Test. The person administering the test would tell the subject a story about how they had walked into a forest. The subject was asked to describe the forest and then the story continued as they walked down a path or struggled through underbrush - or whatever they imagined. Along the way they would find things on the ground (a cup, a key) or encounter features like a body of water or a high wall. And the subject would be asked to describe each of these objects. The idea was that the descriptions revealed a lot about the subject's personality/innermost hidden feelings. The forest was a metaphor for life and the items encountered on the journey represented important aspects of life. I found the test fascinating. For me it was an introduction into similar activities like reading palms or tarot cards. I'm a pretty good cold reader, so a lot of people wanted me to give them the test.

To me the most interesting part was the bear. Naturally, you're in a forest and you spot a bear in the brush or further down the path. What do you do? Some people ran away, some climbed a tree, some stood very still and hoped the bear didn't spot them, some laid down and played dead, a couple of people even insisted there was no bear - it was really just a deer - or the wind.

In the test the bear represents trouble - problems that everyone invariably encounters sooner or later. And the response indicates the subject's default approach to a problem. Running away or hiding aren't really very good ways to deal with bears - and they aren't really a good way to deal with problems. And pretending the problem isn't there doesn't do much either. Those kinds of approaches are what psychologists call avoidance. And avoidance just isn't an effective way of dealing with problems.

Avoidance is how most people deal with death. We say it's inevitable, just like taxes, but we carry on pretending it isn't waiting down the trail. We're surprised every time that someone we know dies, and we don't think about the fact that the same fate waits in store for us.

So back to the bear. One person that I know of, took the forest test and had a different response. That person marched right up to the bear and smacked it on the nose. Probably not a good way to deal with a real bear, but definitely typical of how that person always deals with problems: Confrontation. As you might have figured, that person was me. Confrontation has been my standard way of dealing with problems since I was a very small child. And so, when the day comes that I look down the path and see Death standing there waiting for me. I know what I'll do. I'll march right up, slap him hard, and say not this time you fucker! There are people who manage not to pay taxes, right. So maybe death is not as inevitable as we assume.

I live in hope.

Return to the Land of Death

This little blog used to be called, "In the land of death", and featured interesting (to me) facts about death, my musings on the topic, and occasional eulogies for those who died tragically. I believed that the blog was my way of exercising grief, primarily for my mother with whom I had a fraught relationship. When I felt I had satisfied the need, I moved on and changed the blog to something "happier". And then I didn't write much - partly for lack of time, but primarily for lack of inspiration.

I realize now that I wrote about death because it is a topic I am obsessed with and have been for most of my life. Watching film or tv, I would always comment, "he's dead, she's dead, they're dead" when actors or musicians who had passed would appear on screen. The actor commentary for "Spinal Tap" is especially hilarious to me because one of the characters (in keeping with the spirit of the film the actors comment as their characters) does just that throughout the commentary. Just like me.

The start of this year brought my obsession back very forcefully. I was stunned by the death of David Bowie, a man I loved deeply (or at least my idea of him). I followed his career since early 1972 and followed him around the world, attending shows for all of his concert tours (except 1974) at venues in Vienna, London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego (among others). My feelings were so well known that I had dozens of friends on Facebook offer their condolences to me when he died. (Which was funny in a "how weird is this" sense.) I was also shocked a short time later by the death of Alan Rickman, an amazingly talented actor, whose career was also one I followed. I hope to write about each of those men in other entries, but for now I just want to explore how the death of celebrities feeds my death obsession and fits into the stories I tell myself.

The hardest thing about losing someone who is not, in reality, a part of your day to day life, but who has an important place in your life story, is that your world view doesn't alter abruptly. I never imagined a world that did not have Bowie in it - and so I regularly forget that he's gone. His image in my mind's eye is still vibrant. I can still carry on the same mental conversations with him that I have always had - until I remember that he no longer exists in the real world. I adjust my story for a time, but the force of my emotional bond always brings him back to life for me.

The brain (not the mind) cannot distinguish between a face it sees on a movie or television screen and one it sees sitting on the sofa across the room. This explains the success of soap operas in the 50s, 60s, and early seventies. Housewives watched those shows on a daily basis and brought the characters into their lives and homes. They became friends and enemies and avatars. Watchers had real emotional commitments to the characters and were moved by the triumphs and tragedies they suffered. Today soap operas have been largely replaced by reality tv. Real Housewives, the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, and British royalty, among dozens, have entered into our lives and taken their places in our hearts and minds. And thus the outpouring of grief that follows the death of these people.

This is, I believe, because we all live in the worlds we have constructed in our minds - not in the one that actually exists. Of course, philosophers have been debating about what reality actually is and what is really real for centuries and I don't intend to join that debate. For me, reality is the world in my mind; the stories I tell myself on a daily basis. And in that world, death has no sway. I keep alive the people I care about and reject the physical world's evidence that my view is wrong. For me, Bowie and Rickman are still alive. But to operate in the real world, to conform with the norms of society; I remind myself regularly when I see the images, "He's dead, she's dead, they're dead".