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Dead reckoning


“The single organism can expand into dimensions of worlds and times without
moving a physical limb; it can take eternity into itself even as it graspingly dies.”  – Ernest Becker

My grandmother is dying. A bit over a week ago she fell victim to this year’s virulent flu epidemic and her 96 year old body collapsed under the assault. When I first heard the news she was in a coma and not expected to last more than a day. Ten days later she’s both conscious and compos mentis but unable to lift her head from the pillow. She is receiving palliative care and it’s only a matter of time – a cliche that applies to us all I guess.

Nan and I have often discussed death. We both carry the bipolar one label and the end is never far from our minds. I don’t know our discussions have prepared either of us for the reality of each other’s demise, much less our own, but in a family that treats death as a taboo subject they formed a special bond between us. That and our shared insanity.

I’m comfortable with death – or at least with my imaginings of it. I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. Yet. I think, speak and write about death regularly. Some would say obsessively. My Goddess is Death (and Time and Madness and everything else). I think I’ve let go my fear of death but I’ve thought that before and been wrong.

A recent study from the University of East London suggests that thinking of death can be good for you. I tend to agree. But the study is bunk.

Mark McDermott and Oona McEwan asked 356 subjects aged 18 to 80 about their “experience of death”. How? With a Ouija board? No, it turns out they asked them about their thoughts of death. Leading ‘questions’ included “I do not let the fear of dying rule my life”, “I want to be remembered for doing great things for the world when I am no longer alive” and “I am scared of dying before I am old”. Ernest Becker would have had a good laugh.

According to Becker our inability to accept our mortality is at the root of much of the evil in the world. In order to avoid looking squarely into the grim visage we concoct various ‘immortality projects’, be they religious, cultural, dynastic or artistic. The inevitable conflict between those projects leads to conflict between their proponents and the sort of atrocities that only man – the self-aware mortal – can commit.

I find much to disagree with in Becker’s analysis but when it comes to the weird and wonderful ways we deny our mortality to ourselves I think he hit the nail on the head. I suspect Becker would have recognised that the only truthful response to “I do not let the fear of dying rule my life” would be “False”. If you’re pushing back against your fear of death it is ruling your life.

McDermott and McEwan correlated the answers with various ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ attitudes the participants hold. Apparently disinclination to conform and obey is a negative attitude. They’re psychologists you know. But Stanley Milgram they ain’t.

The researchers found that accepting death, rather than running away or fearing it, can help us make the most of our time-limited lives. Sounds right to me, but I’d like to know how they determined who was making the most of their lives. Obedient conformists no doubt.

The most significant finding (to them) arose from what they dubbed ‘mortality legacy awareness’. This is the desire to leave something behind after we’ve gone; to pass something of ourselves on to future generations. Or in Becker’s words, immortality projects. I call it ‘Ozymandias Complex’.

According to McDermott and McEwan the need for a legacy facilitates dealing with the prospect of death, reduces feelings of helplessness and lack of purpose, promotes healthy lifestyles, maintains good relationships, encourages spiritual growth and offers not only fulfillment but the means to transcend death itself. By leaving a legacy we “live on” and “are never totally gone”. I’ll have one of those thanks. Er, hang on. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. We’re told the results are merely correlations. They don’t actually show that striving for a legacy improves your life. I guess I’ll have a beer instead.

Of course we all leave a legacy whether we plan to or not. Everything you do, everything you touch, is a link in a chain of cause and effect that continues forever. Or at least until entropy nibbles it away. But that ain’t you. Not if you think of yourself as an individual; a separate entity. Your name, your words, your works and your life; all will be completely erased and forgotten eventually. Perhaps fragmented replicas of your DNA will still be functioning many millennia from now, but is that really you? Your monuments, be they statues or stories, will be static and unchanging. Just as dead as your bones. Except inasmuch as others cannibalise them and make them part of themselves. So to make yourself immortal try feeding yourself to the fish. Death and life arise from each other after all. Give a fish a man and it will eat for a week.

I don’t know what relationship the research participants have with death, life and eternity but I can speak from my own experience. When I chased a legacy (albeit unconsciously) I simply displaced the fear of my own death onto the deaths of others. Especially children. When the deaths of loved ones came thick and fast I lost the plot. My immortality project collapsed and so did I. I saw that even though I and others remembered the dead those memories too were subject to death and decay. Their legacies would crumble to dust. So I was unable to let go of the dead. Unable to resolve my grief. Allowing them to ‘die to me’ would have been an admission that I would die to everyone else. After a few years of that I could see only one way out. Suicide.

Why aren’t I dead? Because my grandmother was alive and grieving over her dead husband, the Aboriginal grandfather who had been my link to the deep time of the Land. I was the only close family member who didn’t try to smother her autonomy under a psychiatric diagnosis. The only one fighting for her right to self-determination. That’s something to live for. A good fight.

Morbid and negative fucker, ain’t I. But wait. There’s a happy ending.

I think there’s a way to transcend death. Not by ignoring it, denying it or trying to avoid it. Not with immortality projects either. You’ve gotta go through it. You have to embrace ego death. You must utterly annihilate yourself as a separate individual, along with any notions you have about self-worth, self-contempt, possessions, meaning, purpose, creativity or legacy. Because when you do a funny thing happens. You lose yourself but gain everything. You realise your oneness with all that is, was and will be. You don’t become immortal. You become eternal. Except there is no you. There never was. I don’t need to kill myself after all. And we all die happily ever after.

But what would I know. I’ve never been dead. Or have I? My Mum says I was born that way. That would explain the smell.

I don’t think my grandmother imagines she will continue to exist as a postmortem legacy. But she does have a tentative immortality project. She says if there’s life after death she’ll be back to haunt me. That would be interesting.

From → the dying

  1. Thank you for this. It’s so rare to see some talk about death honestly. Also, your Nan sounds like one hell of a wise and smart lady.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If by ‘wise lady’ you mean ‘witch’ then you agree with my late grandfather.

      Check out the short feature the above film clip comes from. It’s practically an animated expression of Becker’s thesis.

      Liked by 1 person

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