The Fear of Death
There’s no easy way to talk about the reality of death. Most of us live in denial of death starting from a young age and the dominant cultural paradigms reinforce escape from the undeniable reality of one’s death. We may do this by engaging in the countless forms of entertainment and distraction, chasing that ever-elusive future that never comes. Our culture also encourages strong identification with one’s persona or the mask we present to the world while neglecting the most hidden, sacred parts of the psyche. For many, the mask becomes confused with the deeper self.
Only does one come face-to-face with deeper self through confrontations with the shadow or unknown aspects of the self through accidents, illness, dreams, or perhaps a close brush with death, or the loss of a loved one. In day-to-day life, the natural cycles of life and death may even seem foreign to us. We may even shun, judge, condemn, or look away from any sign of illness, weakness, or death. However, there are tremendous lessons to be gained from these confrontations with the other or the unknown. “Like individuals, human societies can reach a physical maturity as well as a spiritual one through enduring violence, despair, and depression, including the pain and misery caused by the wrath of Mother Nature” (Killsback, 2013, p. 139). To live in denial of our precarious relationship to life and death is to strip our days of meaning. To turn towards and face the totality of life with all its suffering, hardship, and impermanency is to set out on the path of individuation and self-knowledge. Many have argued that nearly all fears in life can be traced back to this one primal, existential fear of death. All I know, is that I live with less fear, a wider perspective, more intense passion for life, and a greater ability to let go than I did prior to my confrontation with the unknown.
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My Own Confrontation with Death
Nearly twelve years ago, I contracted the very deadly, necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria in my throat and chest. I was kept in a medically-induced coma for nearly four weeks and was suspended in a dreamworld, which seemed like another reality. When this illness struck me, I was in my early twenties and largely bought into the common ideals of success, as well as social pressures. I had learned that the way to survive in this world was to sacrifice or hide much of who I was to become that which I was molded to be in order to succeed. Simple lessons learned through education and a system of reward and punishment.
However, after just narrowly surviving this major illness, I was so completely transformed that I would never again be the same person. I was brought to the very brink of death and many simple things I took for granted were stripped away—the ability to breathe without the help of a machine, talk, eat, and walk. By the time I was ready to leave the hospital, I was severely underweight, had begun to lose all my hair, and could barely walk several feet without being completely fatigued. I began to notice how others would look at me with disgust, shame, or horror in public. I realized many things about myself and about others in general during this time. They were not always easy lessons and I was not always gracious in learning. I often felt the same horror and disgust at myself and what my physical body had endured. I struggled to come to terms with my new self and was forced to face the shadow-side within myself and within the world. Jung coined the term shadow to encompass the unconscious part of our personality that is instinctive, irrational, and does not fit in with ego identity. Jung stated of the shadow that “the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” For Jung, the path to wholeness or individuation involved facing and integrating the shadow into one’s consciousness.
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When I awoke from the coma, I had no idea what had actually happened to me and I was also in a state of shock just trying to survive. While I had dreams that very closely and accurately reflected what was occurring to my body on a physical level, it was still an incredible shock to learn how long I had been asleep and just how close I had come to death. After that, every morning I woke up, it felt as if I was awakening into a nightmare. It was real, and my body had been violated and ripped apart; yet, now I also had a passion for life and an understanding of myself and my inner-strength that was unshakable.
I had much work ahead of me when it came to healing physically and emotionally, but every day I would put in the effort to try to recover and then let go of expectations. For myself, I began to think of life in terms of before my illness and after my illness. Before my illness, it was easier to pretend I was someone else, conform, or be and pursue what society told me I should be. After my illness, I had no choice but to listen to my emotions, intuitions, dreams, and inner experiences more closely. I was set on a completely new path and begun to shed many dreams, friends, and pursuits from my former life.
The experience of being in the hospital with my family, friends, and nurses was also the most emotionally poignant experience of my life. To be so close to death, so vulnerable, and dependent upon others—I began to feel and live like a child again. Every moment, every breath was so precious, because I had no idea if it would be my last moment. My heart was completely open and my relationship with my family deepened beyond what I ever could have imagined.
The experience changed me on many levels in ways that I never could have anticipated, but overall, I believe that the experience made me a better, more empathetic, deep-feeling, caring, passionate, and courageous. To confront one’s mortality is to put the whole of one’s life, relationships, culture, and priorities in perspective. I try to remember these lessons each day and try not to take anything for granted.
The Gifts of Trauma
According to the surgeons and doctors, I had a 1% chance of surviving, given the severity and location of the infection. I was incredibly fortunate to have narrowly escaped death. While I did not know, moment to moment, if I would live or die, I became aware of the real value of each breath. Each moment became immeasurably significant, precious, and beautiful and contained more meaning than imaginable—each moment contained an eternity. Paradoxically, the two months I was in the hospital fighting this disease were some of the most precious moments in my life. The experience taught me how to surrender and let go and, ultimately, how to live. As the philosopher Krishnamurti (1969) explained, “death is a renewal, a mutation, in which thought does not function at all because thought is old. When there is death there is something totally new. Freedom from the known is death and then you are living” (p. 77).
Whereas, from the outside, many would view my physical experience with horror and revulsion, my experience taught me lessons I could never have learned otherwise. The experience broke me down physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually and allowed me to rebuild a more authentic and honest version of myself. I learned to discard the old image that I had created for myself and the need or desire to accept the current dominant values of society. The experience was a kind of shamanic initiation and marked a return to the mythic time as well as my own internal time.
Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched (2013) explored the relationship between the experience of trauma and the realm of non-ordinary reality or mystical experience. I found that my near-death experience paralleled the inner experiences of trauma survivors and the larger, far-reaching vision obtained from undergoing such traumatic experiences, as described by Kalsched and others. Kalsched noted, “Ironically, trauma survivors are in a unique position to claim this larger vision, because they are often forced prematurely into ‘non-ordinary reality’—a spiritual and often mentalized world that helps them survive the unbearable pain of their really affect-relationships” (p. 4).
Photo by Greg Rakozy
Similarly, Kalsched acknowledged the boundary-effacing effect that trauma can have on the psyche of the individual and the accompanying difficulties experienced by the survivor, who now has to learn, like shamans, to live in two worlds: one confined by the limits of time and ego and the other, which is beyond space and time and taps into the collective. Kalsched found that "Sometimes this spiritual world gives the trauma survivor privileged access to immaterial realities that remain inaccessible to people who live mostly in one world. Many of these patients have special gifts, psychic powers, shamanic visions, or auditory messages from beyond the ego, mystical connections to animals or to nature, access to healing capabilities, uncanny intuitive wisdom, artistic talent, etc. On the other hand, sometimes the spiritual world also torments the trauma survivor in ways that better-adapted people never have to worry about" (2013 p. 9).
Paradoxically, the illness also revitalized me by bestowing upon me the gift of perspective and perseverance, restoring my inner strength and inner sight. I realized that I, alone, had the power to define myself, and I understood the importance of honoring my insights, intuition, emotions, and voice. I began to place greater value on my inner world, dreams, and experiences and became less interested in living up to the standards that others imposed upon me. My fear of death was also reduced, as a result of this experience. Krishnamurti (1969) commented, "Most of us are frightened of dying because we don’t know what it means to live. We don’t know how to live, therefore we don’t know how to die. As long as we are frightened of life we shall be frightened of death. The man who lives without conflict, who lives with beauty and love, is not frightened of death because to love is to die." (p. 77)
An Opportunity to Reconsider Cultural and Societal Values
There is nothing like having a very close encounter with the reality of death to help you radically reprioritize and re-evaluate your life. To have such a dramatic, life-changing experience and then to only go back to the mundaneness of working in a cubicle doing menial, robotic work was excruciatingly painful. I struggled to fit myself back into that small box. Saddled with debt from medical bills, a radically changed sense of self, as well as my share of PTSD symptoms, I humbled myself to go back to the grind and try to pretend that nothing extraordinary happened. However, a part of my heart and mind was still on fire from the experience and more alert and observant than ever. I began to question not only the structure of my life, but basic assumptions and values particularly surrounding our relationship to time and money. Author, novelist, and broadcaster J.B. Priestley (1968) asserted that if we reduce time “to a single line, then almost everything that seems to add richness, depth, and meaning to your mind and to your life becomes nothing” (p. 285). I could see this conflict everywhere around me! Why then, have we transformed something as precious as the gift of life into something as painful as watching hours drag by on a clock or holding our breath for some future moment where we feel some kind of relief or feeling of truly being alive?
Perhaps, it is not merely a matter of chance, but a strategy of social engineering through the system of reward and punishment used by many leaders, institutions, and organizations. For many of us, we become conditioned to sacrifice the joy of living for a sense of security or promise of a future reward. It also seems apparent that there are certain, obvious benefits for a few to organize a society by keeping the majority of the population locked into a reward and punishment system. "Political tyranny in every culture begins by devaluing the time of others. Indeed, the exploitation of human beings is only possible in pyramidal time cultures, where rulership is always based on the proposition that some people’s time is more valuable and other people’s time more expendable" (Rifkin, 1987, p. 196-197).
I could not completely understand or come to terms with the existing social order, but I was beginning to more clearly feel, perceive, and articulate its oppressive impact.
In the dominant culture of West, which emphasizes incessant activity, becoming, doing, working, willing, and controlling, many of us struggle with letting go, being receptive, and embracing stillness or passivity. In fact, it has become quite a moral, ethical, and religious ideal to be productive and work hard. This dilemma is not only reflected in our obsession with buying and hoarding, but also how we approach work, relationships, and living. Rifkin noted “To become ‘regular as clockwork’ became the highest values of the new industrial age…The clock conditioned the human mind to perceive time as external, autonomous, continuous, exacting, quantitative, and divisible. In so doing, it prepared the way for a production mode that operated by the same set of temporal standards.” (1987 p. 87). We are led to believe that technology and the computer would free the majority from the burdens of menial tasks or hard labor. However, with each passing year, the collective suffering does not decrease as many remain enslaved or exploited. Those at the bottom often suffer the most, being the most deprived of time for themselves and their families.
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Is this a mistake or is there some method to the madness? Any student of history intuits that there is some reason behind a particular set of rules and norms. Preferred and profitable behavior is rewarded and reinforced, while undesirable behavior is punished. Rifkin also commented, “Clearly we have had to pay a heavy price for our efficient society…The efficient society has increased our superficial creature comforts but forced us to become more detached, self-absorbed, and manipulative in relation to others.” (1987 p. 12). The consequence of our current societal values seems to be that we have lost much of our very sense of humanity, dignity, and depth of our relationships. “In many ways, it [money] has replaced or become a substitute for kinship systems in which reciprocity and altruism linked members and helped ensure our species’ survival for hundreds of thousands of years.” (Kipnis, 2013, p. 4). So what is the solution or way out of this cold, inhuman, and efficient society?
Lessons from Wise Men, Women, and Other Cultural Perspectives
In these uncertain times, we can either try to keep running away from fears and cling to that which is known or we can turn around, face our fears, and allow ourselves to transformed by leaping off into the unknown. There have been wise men and women of the past, ancient cultures and societies that might be able to teach us more about ourselves. Does it take near-death experience to catch a glimpse into a deeper level of reality or is it possible to experience such boundary-dissolving states during normal, waking consciousness? I believe it is not necessary to come to the brink of death to have such precious realizations, but there are certain ingredients that make it more likely. Many mystics speak of importance of solitude, silence, or spending time in nature to help contact that part of the self that is timeless.
According to Jeannie Patton (1993), an educator specializing in Native American literature, “‘Indian time makes sense,” because it does not discriminate between spiritual and bodily needs but instead is “multidimensional and mythic . . . [and] based on appropriateness of action,” whereas “chronological and linear notions of time contribute to dislocation and illness . . . [because] living in bondage to watches is disruptive” and averse to “ceremonial time concepts” (p. iii). Traditionally, Native Americans emphasized appropriateness or rightness of action and existed within a temporal ordering that was tied to their spiritual and bodily needs. Whereas linear time often emphasizes goal-oriented action over inaction or being, Native Americans’ conception of time allowed for greater a balance between being and doing.
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In contrast to mythic time or an emphasis on right action/timing, Rifkin claimed Americans are for the most part taught to doubt and reject their thoughts, feelings, sensations, experiences, and emotions and search for validation or approval from an external mode of measurement, institution, ideal, or authority figure (1987, p.59). Children learn that their well-being and measure of success depends upon their adherence to external measurement of time. From the basis of this and other similar studies, Rifkin concluded that our testing systems, indeed our entire educational system, penalizes those students who view time in more passive, natural forms.
Patton (1993) asserted that denying one’s own rhythm and impulses is to denying one’s autonomy and sense of empowerment. She explained how Native Americans had several different notions of time, which placed greater emphasis on the relationship between a person and an event than on this phenomenon tied to linear chronological time. She stated, “For an Indian, if being on time means being out of harmony with self and ritual, the Indian will be ‘late’” (p. 3). In traditional Native American cultures, right action, balance, self-responsibility and harmony were valued over conforming to the linear temporal system. In addition, this other temporal valued a sense of multidimensional space and timelessness embedded in spirituality. The spiritual dimension of life or entering into a state of timelessness is valuable and necessary for healing, integration, and experiencing a state of wholeness, whereas moving into a linear timeline creates ill health, disease, fragmentation, and conflict. Patton wrote, "When one forsakes linear time in order to enter mythological time, ceremonial time, renewed spirituality and improved physical health result. Those characters who remain victims of the time machine inevitably suffer; their suffering is manifested in alcoholism, homelessness, lack of community support, emptiness and self-destructive tendencies" (p. 4).
Another author Edward Hall noted that the Navajo conceive of time as more present-oriented: “To the old-time Navajo time is like space—only the here and now is quite real. The future has little reality to it” (p. 10). For the Hopi, stated Hall, time involves a natural sequence of events as opposed to a fixed quantity or duration as conceived in the dominant temporal paradigm. Time is, for them, “the natural process that takes place while living substance acts out its life drama. Therefore, there is a different time for everything which can be altered by circumstances” (p. 143). The ideas we have about time, as well as the ideas the society at large has about time dictates how we relate to ourselves, our environment, and our relationships.
Applications to the Current Pandemic
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, many of us are reminded of our mortality and that even our intricate systems, complicated technology, position, or wealth cannot protect us from forces far more ancient and larger than us. It has been said that death is the great equalizer that no one escapes. With that, the virus can encourage us to re-evaluate unquestioned assumptions, principles, and values that we have been blind to. It can help us discover a different kind of world that is not merely organized around the religion of time=money. With many out of work all at once and the threat of illness a reality for most, it is an opportunity to re-evaluate our core values as a society and a deeper meaning in daily life.
As with any crisis, there is an opportunity to explore and reach new depths of one’s being, but also an opportunity to be exploited through the desire to cling to that which is secure and known. Many a con men and tyrants accumulate their power through preying on this natural human tendency to look to authority for enticing promises of a certain future. However, just as we see blatant acts of greed and selfishness, which stem from this primal, fear of death, we also see smaller or larger acts of altruism and compassion in spite of risk or danger. On the collective level, this allows for confrontations with deeper, but perhaps unpleasant truths.
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Carl Jung often commented on the ailments of modern man and called for a return to a world with greater meaning and value for the individual. “Through scientific understanding, our world has become dehumanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which had a symbolic meaning for him.” In many ways, Jung could perceive the trajectory that the U.S. has been racing towards, which is a world of increased automation, lacking meaning, and detached from the natural world. The majority of us still remind blind to these simple truths, because we are immersed in this way of life and may feel we have no choice but to travel along with the current. As with any person existing in any given time, we are influenced by the biases and prejudices of culture, economy, and expediency. Jung also wrote about the life (eros) and death (thanatos) instincts, as well as the absence of myth and meaning in modern life, which has led to an inner division or fragmentation.
Perhaps now more than ever, it is time to take an honest look at ourselves and discover who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Our culture is as much a reflection of the individual as the individual is a reflection of that culture. A collective and global confrontation with death is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to awaken us!
"Our intellect has created a new world that dominates nature, and has populated it with monstrous machines. The latter are so indubitably useful and so much needed that we cannot see even a possibility of getting rid of them or of our odious subservience to them. Man is bound to follow the exploits of his scientific and inventive mind and to admire himself for his splendid achievements. At the same time, he cannot help admitting that his genius shows an uncanny tendency to invent things that become more and more dangerous…In spite of our proud domination of nature we are still her victims as much as ever and have not even learnt to control our own nature, which slowly and inevitable courts disaster." (Jung, 2002, p.122).
Hall, E. (1981). The silent language. New York, NY: Anchor Books
Jung, C. G. (1966). The psychology of the transference (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 16, pp. 163-323). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)
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Patton, J. (1993, November). Time and technology in Native American Indian literature. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, Pittsburg, PA.
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