[Exploring Life] Death is the inevitable result of aging. Dying is a close companion of death, that mysterious process that ushers us through the final threshold in life. The most profound source of our insecurities and our most penetrating fears originate in death and dying. Death and dying are often unpopular and unwelcome topics for conversation; we sometimes avoid discussions of them because they can feel depressing, uncomfortable, and morbid. We have developed a potent arsenal of avoidance strategies, and we circumvent an authentic, meaningful, and personal exploration of death and dying. As a result, we lose a powerful source of personal enrichment, inspiration, and opportunity in life.
Developing personal insight and wisdom about death and dying helps us to cope with life’s vicissitudes when they do eventually come falling down upon us. Finding a way to accept that life is a terminal condition has been a timeless, universal human endeavour. Death inevitably touches each one of us and enforces the same resolution. Dying, the mercurial undertow of death, is an elusive phenomenon. We can never know with any certainty how our own process of dying will express itself in our life. Perhaps we might die suddenly in an accident and the process of dying is only minutes or seconds long, or maybe medical science will artificially extend our time here through medical interventions that slow down the tempo of dying and add months or years to our life span. Ultimately, we contemplate death and dying in order to inspire a deep sense of gratitude and awareness of our own individuality, identity, creative capacities, and belonging.
Thanatology (from the Greek thanotos meaning death) is the formal study of death, dying, and bereavement. In many modern societies today, medical science presents death and dying as a kind of failure. In The Hour of Our Death (Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader 2004) Philippe Aries characterized the twentieth century as an age dominated by the concept of success. Death and dying represented failures of medical science, and to cope with these failures science sterilized the deathbed and turned the entire process of dying into a clinical experience. He referred to this model of death and dying as The Invisible Death, which is symbolic of a desire to hide our “failures.” Early in the twenty-first century we can still feel the presence of this perspective on death. In summarizing Aries ideas about the Invisible Death, Marilyn Hadad provides this crucial insight:
In the twentieth century, however, Western society became dominated by the concept of success. Death represented the failure of medical science… the pathos of the deathbed scene was removed; compassion was shown by denying to a person that death was imminent… The scene shifted from the family home and familiar bedside to the sterility of a hospital in which medical science prolonged life to the point of ugliness… The medical profession, becoming so skilled in prolonging life, took over death and sanitized it with white coats and medical smells. The individual no longer had the identity of his or her own death.
- Marilyn Hadad in The Ultimate Challenge: Coping with Death, Dying, and Bereavement.
One of the most important underlying purposes of Thanatology is to retrieve death from the bleakness and sterility of medical technology, and return it to the personal domain. Far too much of the experience of old age has become outsourced, that is to say, we seek external services to take away the burdens associated with aging, dying, and death when we should be integrating them into our lives. Deep within our soul we know that this outsourcing and externalizing of aging, dying and death is fundamentally wrong. From a pragmatic perspective, however, the basic requirements of survival in a society obsessed by success largely negates our ability to meaningful attend to the issues and problems associated with aging, death, and dying. We are required to spend too much of our time working toward bland notions of success, achievement, and acquisition. Medical science can prolong life, perhaps in unnatural ways, but death and dying will always fundamentally remain a deeply personal and primal matter.
Questions that arise from the study of death, dying, and bereavement will often present a challenge to many of our long-standing cultural assumptions. Death should never be invisible, or characterized as some kind of failure. This attitude is not only misguided, it is fundamentally disrespectful and offensive. The benefits of medical science in the area of life extension are beneficial and significant, however, the attitudes engendered by it are frail and self-serving. This weakness in our approach to healthcare engenders weakness in both individual and community. To embrace life, to live it as vibrantly as possible, means that we must openly embrace the identity of our own death.
Portrayals of Death
Narrative is the way we try explain ourselves to ourselves. Death and dying have been a focal point for story-telling since the dawn of humanity. Many ancient perspectives viewed death as a curse imposed on humankind by a vengeful supernatural being. The Garden of Eden is effectively a story that portrays death as an act of eternal punishment on all of humankind due to the bad behaviour of two people. Other stories portray death as a kind of unfortunate accident that we have inherited due to some kind of accident or miscommunication that has taken place between humans and supernatural beings a long time ago. Many of these ancient stories form the basis for belief systems as well as systems of faith today.
Death is often made easier to accept when there is some promise of an afterlife. The pyramids of Egypt are giant tombs intended to provide an immortal dwelling place in the afterlife for rulers and the wealthy, as well as many murdered servants. Many other stories emerged that presented notions of an afterlife as a form of judgement imposed upon us, a shadowy underworld, or perhaps even the possibility of resurrection or reincarnation. All of these portrayals have one thing in common, the desire to creatively interpret death as a transitional state to another dimension, rather than a final state that offers no continuity.
The Anglo (i.e. – white North American) portrayal of death and dying is often portrayed as a combination of a stoical acceptance combined with a minimum of emotional display. The attempt is to confine and enslave bereavement to imposed social norms in order to create a little impact as possible on the successful chugging along of material consumption. There is no real bravery, courage, or honour in this approach. Only misguided society would hijack the experience of death in such an insensitive manner. Workers are often required to return to work in the midst of bereavement, expected to hide their grief from others, and return to “normal” productivity with little or no disruption. We are therefore forced to contain and ignore our grief, which breeds resentment, mistrust, and distress. Our Anglo beliefs and approaches to death, dying, and bereavement are wholly inadequate, inept, and highly disrespectful to each one of us. There is no strength in this approach, only weakness and avoidance.
Creative Practice: Our Own Death
One of the outcomes of uncontrolled fear is the psychology of avoidance, that is to say, we have a tendency to avoid the things we fear the most. By avoiding discomfort, we pretend to hold our fears at a safe distance. Death strikes fear into each one of us, and being close to death is to be intimate with the very essence of fear. A great deal of creative expression is inspired by fear; fear can be an inspiring presence when we choose to move directly into its midst and consciously seek out the wisdom that lies hidden within its embrace. In this sense, being afraid becomes a potent opportunity for significant personal growth and development. Embracing death and dying as a creative practice helps to centre us firmly in life and build meaningful capacities such as belonging, gratitude, and compassion.
To continually transfigure the faces of your own death, ensures that, at the end of your life, your physical death will be no stranger, robbing you against your will of the life you have had; you will know its face intimately. Since you have overcome your fear, your death will be a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of your own nature.
- John O’Donohue in Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.
Transfiguration is a core capacity of any creative practice. To transfigure means to change the shape or appearance or nature of something. When we apply the creative skill of transfiguration to our fears, we engage in the deeply personal and authentic work of transforming fear into wisdom. The power of transfiguration lies in the ability to reshape a negative presence in life into a positive influence for creative growth. When something is no longer strange to us, our fears may not be not eliminated, but their felt-meaning is now a calmer and more integrated presence in our lives. We “overcome” our fears by integrating them and embracing their companionship, not by trying to eliminate them.
The heart of O’Donohue’s message of transfiguration is captured in the beautiful phrase, “your death will be a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of your own nature.” This is a wonderful insight, and an essential element in the creative practice of meeting our own death. It is not a morbid thought, even though we may feel a subtle underlying sense of dread within it. Meeting death as a life-long friend, an Anam Cara, is the solution to Marilyn Hadad’s comment above: “The individual no longer had the identity of his or her own death.” It is also the remedy to Philippe Aries criticism of the twentieth century’s “invisible death” in which death is arrogantly presented as nothing more than a perceived failure of medical science.
Core Idea: Death & Dying
Avoiding death and dying is to avoid the essence of our own presence. In any exploration of aging, death and dying are centre stage, regardless of our attempts to keep them at a safe distance. To explore aging in the absence of meaningful conversation about death immediately renders the discussion shallow and superficial. Within death is the primal nucleus of meaning, purpose, gratitude, and belonging; death inspires authentic wisdom and profound truth. In this sense, embracing death and dying as a creative practice is to consciously pursue wisdom; there is no wisdom that does not embrace the immense presence of death and dying in our lives.