The Bucket Interview
How Denial of Death Can Deny You of Life
Dr. Robert Firestone, co-author of "Beyond Death Anxiety"
By Jean Lang
A clinical psychologist, author, sailor and a firm believer that facing death is life-affirming, Dr. Firestone has published 14 books, including “Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness,” which he co-wrote with Joyce Catlett. He took time out from a recent sailing adventure in Europe to answer a few questions about how death awareness can improve your life.
Why do people ignore their mortality? Is it conscious or subconscious?
Although some people claim that they have no fear of death, in general, directly facing one’s personal mortality, the cessation of all experience as one knows it, is both emotionally painful and terrifying, For this reason, people consciously and unconsciously respond by relying on psychological defenses that deny the reality of death or attempt to relieve the pain.
When children first become aware of death, they are pained to contemplate the death of their parents. Later, they learn that their own lives are threatened and they, too, will die. When this happens their entire concept of reality and permanence is shattered. The manner in which they defend themselves and the degree of dependency on fantasy processes depend largely on their previous adjustment.
People face a core conflict in relation to death anxiety: whether to choose to go toward life and fulfillment regardless of death’s finality or to retreat and align oneself with death and to varying degrees, subvert one’s personal goals and pursuit of life. The latter leads to a narrow defended and self-protective lifestyle with a marked decrease in feeling for self and others. This philosophy, although usually unspoken, can be stated as: Why invest in a life that you will certainly lose?
In answer to your question about procrastination, the person who chooses the avoidant, defended posture is more likely to postpone and deny him/ herself potential gratification and rationalize negative choices in life.
The more the defended, negative, self-denying attitude prevails in the general population there will be a corresponding effect on society. When people are more reliant on a defensive, somewhat negative outlook, they are generally more dissatisfied and the atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive, more intolerant and divided, and less compassionate and humane. Whenever there is a declination in feeling and a sense of freedom and self-expression, there is also likely to be more aggression.
Do you see this trend as happening?
Yes. Sadly, people in contemporary society are becoming more impersonal and robotic, more coded in their communication and more cut off from feeling. In our complex, mechanistic society, people are becoming more like the machines that they are creating. There is always the possibility of change, but at the present time there is a general movement toward people becoming less personal and less social in their interactions.
Is it important for individuals to change these tendencies for themselves? For society?
Obviously, yes is the answer; it is important for both individuals and society. Unfortunately, one cannot circumvent emotional pain and suffering and repress the existential dilemma without losing feeling for oneself and other people. Thus, the defensive choice always causes damage to the individual. In contrast, living a relatively undefended life leads to an increased potential for experiencing all of one’s emotions.
As individuals learn to deal more directly with death anxiety as it arises, they come to place greater value on their lives and find them to be more meaningful. They feel more integrated, experience more fulfillment, are better able to tolerate intimacy, and are more likely to retain the capacity to find happiness in life. Facing existential issues of life and death, albeit sad and painful, and coping with the prevailing emotions can lead to life-affirming death awareness.
Could the average person, one not clinically depressed or dying, live a fuller life by acknowledging death?
Yes. Facing our mortality and feeling the emotions of sadness, anger, and fear can give greater meaning to life and make it all the more precious. This awareness also places our experiences in perspective and helps us avoid trivializing our existence. Aligning oneself with life enables us to experience the full range of feelings, both positive and negative. The less defended individual feels more alive, has the opportunity to experience more freedom and independence, and has a greater chance to evolve and fulfill his or her human potential. The realization that we are all in the same boat and share the same fate leaves us open to the existential dilemma and allows for more compassion and feeling for others.
What can a person do to constructively work on death awareness?
Talking about your feelings about death anxiety with a close friend is helpful. There is also the possibility of attending seminars and workshops on the subject that are available at universities and institutes. A recent development has been the creation of “death cafes” where small groups of people gather for dinner and serious conversation with the stated objective of ‘increasing awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.’
It is of great importance to find a healthy outlet for expressing underlying emotions about death and dying. A person can try to release these deep feelings when alone, in private, but it is even more valuable to express them in the presence of other sympathetic individuals. The catharsis is most effective when the full intensity of suppressed feelings of sadness and anger are released. Later, it is valuable to understand and integrate the emotional experience in an open conversation. Additional help can be sought from a qualified psychotherapist if desired or needed.
I would like to add that in recent times, psychologists have been increasingly aware of the fundamental impact of death on life. There is a growing body of research on this matter. Terror Management theorists have investigated the effect of death salience on the responses of experimental subjects. They have discovered that merely introducing the subject of death as a variable significantly affects people’s attitudes and points of view on a variety of issues political and otherwise.
About the Writer
Jean Lang is a freelance writer and a former Boston-based Associated Press reporter. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, AARP Bulletin, and other publications. Jean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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