The Mother of all Anxiety
THE FEAR OF DEATH
We are going to die. The terror of our mortality is stark and disturbing. Humans have created many adaptions in an attempt to cope with ‘the worm at the core’, the anxiety that festers beneath all other human fears. Yet it’s this very anxiety that is also the Gift. Death awareness is the sacred key to living the most meaningful, wonderful and enriching life possible. In the words of philosopher Martin Heidegger, ‘we can live intensely only if we stare death in the face’.
All fear is fear of death at the core. The notion of death influences everything we do whether we are aware of it or not. Greed, art, war, celebrity worship, religion, plastic surgery, consumerism, prejudice, tribalism, sport and really the whole human narrative, are all mechanisms by which we manage this subconscious core fear. Although our lives can be pretty sweet much of the time, deep down in our subconscious we struggle with the extraordinarily disconcerting fact that we won’t be here forever.
In 1974, Ernest Becker an American anthropologist wrote his definitive work “The Denial of Death” in which he argued the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralysing existential terror, and that civilisation (culture) is an elaborate symbolic defence mechanism with fantastic narratives that serve to manage that terror. Over the decades, Becker’s pioneering work eventually developed into the creation of contemporary Terror Management Theory.
Terror Management research has shown that depending on what you value in terms of your self-concept, whenever death is on your mind, whether consciously or subconsciously, you are going to be more engaged in the pursuit of that value. If for example, your world of meaning is derived from having money, when you are exposed to your mortality you will either boost your self worth by making more money or by spending/displaying more money. In a world view of meaning found in perpetual youth and beauty, we might use diets, cosmetics or even plastic surgery to enhance self esteem in order to deny death. We are all seeking to believe that life is meaningful and that we have value.
But it’s not Death Anxiety per se that causes human misery, but our repression of this psychological anxiety that becomes the monster in the form of hating people who are different, disrespecting the environment and so on.. And it’s these unsavoury behaviours that may end up making us the first form of life that will be responsible for its own extinction. But despite, or even because of this, there is extraordinary alchemical gold to be found in the awareness of our fears.
HOW DEATH ANXIETY CAN TRIGGER AN AWAKENED LIFE
The awareness of the finitude of our lives causes us to increasingly value the life we have. We begin to rearrange our priorities. More meaning is placed on the importance of our relationships, and our love for others as well as the joy of simply being alive. We are awakened to the preciousness of life because there is an expiry date. We become more aware of our place in the web of life, our connection to all life through our actions as their consequences, good or bad. We gain greater insight on how we deeply change the world by our thoughts and actions and how dependent and connected we are to all life. So our focus turns to the here and now, to this moment and by limiting our time in the future and past, we positively affect our mental health.
Once we confront our own mortality, we are inspired to rearrange our priorities, appreciate the intense beauty of life, communicate more deeply and become more willing to take the risks necessary for our personal fulfilment. As part of our work at Sacred Earth, we facilitate a Facing the Fear of Death workshop where we confront our own death as a path to more passionate and joyful living. When we face the event of our physical death BEFORE it happens, fear loosens its grip on us and we gain the courage to test our wings, and really fly.