I’ve been thinking a lot about my death lately. I know most people would not approve of this seemingly morbid preoccupation but I find it keeps me focussed on my life and what I have left of it.
Speaking of death goes against a most important moral precept we have, one of our most cherished ideals: health. A focus on health along with wealth and happiness is supposed to keep us in a good mental state and thinking positively about our lives and our activities. Given our obsession with health, it’s not surprising that we don’t want to hear about death. Death is the ultimate failure of health, now isn’t it? We seem to love to speak about our healthy lifestyles and post comments on Facebook about our healthy diets. We are constantly bombarded with ads and opinions about how to stay healthy. We are admonished for not eating healthily, drinking too much booze or engaging in activities that could ‘damage’ our health.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being healthy. I’m just saying that it’s immoral in a world that glorifies health to be unhealthy. Now before you go off telling me I’m full of crap, think about it. Think of how we speak in hushed tones when someone is found to be ill and the words we speak to the relatives of the sick and ailing. Think of how we are uncomfortable around people who are obviously ailing or seriously ill. We equate illness with weakness and mygawd we must stay strong!
Disease and death as Ernest Becker so eloquently put it are “the two principle evils of the human organismic condition. Disease defeats the joys of prosperity while one is alive, and death cuts prosperity off coldly.” (EFE, page 3)
So, why do I think about my death? Why do I anticipate the moment of my last breath? Well, I know my death is tomorrow. I was 20 years old yesterday although I’m now 70, so how far down the road can my death be? It will be on me in a moment just as old age has come in a blistering flash. Time truly does fly. So, in thinking about my death, I give my life some meaning, some urgency. Life and death are one in the same thing. One cannot exist without the other so in denying death we are denying a crucial part of what makes us alive.
Our denial of death is a great cultural conspiracy to keep us feeling guilty and to keep us in line, conforming to the moral ideals that rule our world. Yes, like most animals, we have a primordial will to live, but unlike most animals we have wreaked havoc on the world in our ill-fated attempts at guaranteeing our immortality. Anyone who dares oppose our chosen path to immortality beware because you will soon be targets of our wrath.
Tomorrow I tackle morality and wealth. If you’re poor you might as well be dead in our world.
14 thoughts on “My death”
Always thought-provoking Roger. I wouldn’t say I dwell on my death, but there’s no question that I think about it a great deal more than when I was 20! Mostly, I think that I need to clean up and clear out all the “stuff” that I’ve gathered along the road….the emotional crap and the material surpluses. And then again, there are the regrets. As they say, “Not many, but I have a few.” All those moments, when with so little extra effort or time on my part, I could have behaved better to those I love and befriend, never mind the strangers. If I really allow myself to consider them all I wonder sometimes how I grew to be so stingy with my effort and time.
And as is often the case, you are so right about how our society treats those less healthy, and even more aggravating to me, how people, especially on Facebook it seems, say “I’m sorry for your loss.” How effing original! Frankly, I hope nobody posts my death on Facebook, although I expect that will be too much to hope for.
Frankly, I prefer my grief in private….I hate that feeling that one gets which I call the “bereaved widow” syndrome. Actually, that’s quite humourous in my case since I haven’t been married for 40 years! The “bereaved widow syndrome?” That sensation you get as friends and strangers fawn over you if you mention that someone you know has died, how they try to say something meaningful and kind, but which is often inane. I don’t even understand why strangers think they need to say anything….they weren’t my friends last week and they probably won’t be my friends next week. Personally, I wish they’d just say something like “I see you are sad…that person must have meant a lot to you.”
Well…see what you started? You put out these damned missiles and they spur me to add my two cents!
We all seem to be uncomfortable around disease and death. I think other animal species experience grief and sorrow around the sickness and death of their close relatives. If you ever get a chance, read Carl Safina’s work on this topic. What I wanted to do here is point out that our sense of grief around death has turned into cultural imperatives that are designed to deny death, not explicitly, of course, but in fact. Our medical practices consider death a moral failing. We talk about the fight against cancer, diabetes and other conditions as if they are the enemy of life. In a biological sense they are, but we make it a moral struggle too. We have to die from something, some form of bodily deterioration. But deterioration is just the process of life. We do hope for the ‘good’ death, which means going to 90 years of age, healthy as anything, then keeling over from a stroke or heart attack. That’s a moral imperative although it does have a basis in biology. Fundamentally, we are a strange animal with a big brain that we use primarily to deny death, which means to deny life. Strange. By the way, if you ever get a chance to read Ernest Becker’s Escape From Evil, take it. Read it and then we can talk. I’ve mentioned Becker to you before.
Roger, you are writing about only one type of death in this post. There are also the tragic deaths, such as that of my young father, just getting started in life with my mom, my sister, and me. He had a lot to live for, yet due to an split-second accident, his life was snuffed out and our lives forever changed. Since he was a focussed man who had put his priorities in place quite early in life (compared to today’s youth) he had accomplished more in his 32 years of life than many people accomplish in a lifetime. As far as we knew, dad was “fit as a fiddle.”
I think there are different attitudes in our society toward the early death as opposed to the death of one who has lived several decades as adults.
Just before I close, I still view yours and Becker’s views on death as having been either derived from or influenced by Roman Catholic teachings, as I personally do not see that there is a moral struggle connected with death. My faith background does not give me this view on death. I don’t see that the secular world brings morality into death either.
No, Marilyn, I’m writing about death and death denial in a very broad sense. I’m not focussed on our individual experience of death but more on the cultural symbols and mechanisms we have evolved to deal with death denial. Can you see the comment I just wrote in response to Paul Whyte’s comment? If you can’t, I’ll cut and paste some of it so that you might have a better appreciation for what I’m saying.
By the way, Catholicism has absolutely nothing to do with my views today. I left Roman Catholicism behind decades ago. My current views are the culmination of decades of dialogue with many scholars living and dead.
I think whee I get this idea is that I have read some material where you have quoted works by sociologists you agree with who suggested thst “the church” denials death because they teach “eternal life” to the “saved” and eternal damnation to the “unsaved” sinners, but not oblivion or annihilation of the dead person’s body, soul, and spirit. I have known that you renected Roman catholic teachings long ago. I guess what you are focussing on here is the decular world’s denial of death and the general trend toward prolonging life in whatever way we can – healthy eating, exercise, and many otber ways. Am I know closer to you intentions? Just about to fall asleep. I will review this blog again soon.
Yes, that’s closer to my thoughts.
Good piece old friend, and while I agree with much of what you say, I have to start with an objection. Health, per se, is NOT a moral precept. I do not disagree that it might appear to have been elevated to such status, but that reflects a cultural appropriation for particular purposes. Promoting health [and longing for individual longevity] has indeed been presented to us all as if it is a moral good, and consequently, it feeds an entire economic enterprise for profit on our staying healthy. The failure of persons to be [and remain] healthy does lead to a stigmatization, as if they have deliberately chosen to act “immorally”, irrespective of the many circumstances which may contribute to their “failure”.
Death is the ultimate existential crisis. Our inevitable personal death is an experience that cannot be shared. (Our) death haunts us throughout our lifetime. When we are young and full of promise, we repress this general unspoken fear. If we survive into ‘old age’, death tries to reassert itself into our everyday consciousness. The older we become, the more obvious it is that our time is running down. This is exacerbated by the deaths of persons we love or know.
Giving one’s life meaning by choosing to live what JP Sartre called an ‘authentic’ life is very difficult to do and most people tire of the daily challenge and succumb to what he called a life of ‘bad faith’. In the absence of God, everything is indeed possible [except of course the expiration of our physical being]. Do I wish I had more time in front of me, yes. Do I fear my death, not really. As Socrates said so eloquently, “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
I take your point about health. However, we have evolved cultural mechanisms that consider disease and death as the two principal evils of human life. Evil is by definition a moral concept. They ‘fit’ into the ‘bad’ end of our moral continuum. In our world the moral ideal is a healthy mind in a healthy body. A healthy mind is one that adopts most of the values the inhabit the ‘good’ end of our moral continuum. And, of course, in my mind, morality is not a set of abstract values. No, the values that drive the moral continuum exist in our social/cultural world. They define the glue that holds people together in society. Emile Durkheim called sociology the science of morality because it traces the forces that bind us in societies. We may not all agree with the forces that bind us, but in many ways, we don’t have any choices in the matter. Laws and mores determine our relationships and they are grounded in the dominant mode of production at any given point in history for any given people. To get back to my earlier point, a healthy body is achieved, in our moral world, by making the ‘right’ decisions in life, decisions that find approval in the centres of social and economic power, those closest to our moral core. The further we stray from our moral core, the more likely we are to suffer opprobrium, isolation, illness and disease.
Obviously, it’s not as simple as I make it out to be here. The foundations of my views on this come from a number of social scientists and psychologists like Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Norbert Elias, Sigmund Freud, etc. Ernest Becker is the great synthesizer of their work, but he misunderstands Marx and Darwin, probably the two most influential scholars on my thoughts today although Elias is close behind.
BTW, there was an interesting documentary on TV we watched last night on Nietzsche. There was an earlier one in the series on Marx and the next one is on Freud. I forget the details but these programs should be available online somewhere.
To end this, I’d like to add that I’m not particularly interested, in an intellectual sense, in how we as individuals deal with death, grief, etc. I’m much more interested in our cultural symbols and mechanisms and how they support and sustain our denial of death, including things like scapegoating and what we now call ‘othering’, hero worship, and even class and inequality.
I can see how tired I am by my typos by which I am embarrassed. I an using my smartphone rather tban my computer with ergonomic keyboard. I cant see a way to correct these tupos. Apologies.
Hey, don’t worry about it.
In our western culture, with its promotion of the rights of individuals and the sanctity of human life, I agree that the counterpoint to this view is disease and death. They represent the very negation of life.
Our notion of what constitutes a ‘good’ human being has from the ancient Greeks, like Plato, onwards, depicted a healthy mind inside a healthy body. And while I might long for clarity around the presence of absolute truths, a la Plato’s Forms, I too must live in the ‘real’ world where codes of morality are formulated from socio-religious and cultural norms accepted by the majority of one’s fellow citizens.
You are right to state that laws and mores determine our relationships and that they are generated by the dominant forces/class within our particular economic system, but they are consequently relativistic not absolute. This enables dissent and non-conformity by persons within the prevailing system and even allows the dominant powers to change or amend those values over time.
The pursuit and maintenance of a healthy body is made to equate to a moral good, and because it seems to be a matter of individual responsibility, those who ‘fail’ will be held accountable and be subjected to the “opprobrium, isolation, illness and disease” you mention.
The cultural pressures to adhere to a healthy lifestyle are immense and ubiquitous in our western civilization. Quality of life issues are advanced as moral goods without the need to state the denial of death impulse behind them. Efforts to extend human life, almost by whatever means, are deemed appropriate and declared intrinsically good. Adoration of youthful health and vigor is the overwhelming imagery of our cultural landscape. Slowing down the march of time’s effects upon the physical body becomes a crusade of sorts which begets responses “like scapegoating and what we now call ‘othering’, hero worship, and even class and inequality.”
Thanks, Paul. As usual an erudite and thoughtful response to one of my blogs. I often think of Marx’s The German Ideology and his analysis in there of the relationship of his economic base to the superstructure of any given mode of production. ‘Economic base’ and ‘superstructure’ are obviously constructs that can only hint at the complex reality of a mode of production at any given moment in its history. Still, I must conclude that ethics and morality fall squarely in the superstructure and are fundamentally if not entirely a function of social relations of production. Because Marx saw a dialectical relationship between the base and superstructure, he could conclude that at times philosophical, artistic, and other superstructural ‘moments’ can and do affect the severity, celerity and overall dynamics of the relations of production. On a parting note, Marx was clear that ‘the revolution’ would first occur in the industrialized areas of the world and I think he was correct. Any thoughts?
The German Ideology, written by Marx & Engels in 1846 but not actually published until 1932, was a sledgehammer in prose that effectively and permanently separated Marx from all his radical/revolutionary contemporaries like Bruno Bauer and other Young [Left] Hegelians. It does indeed use and push L. Feuerbach’s notions on the creation of ideas, namely, man-made, and offers us the first lengthy elaboration of what is his ‘materialist conception of history’.
In this view of history, you are right to state that the philosophical, legal, religious and moral ideas are the expression of the dominant social relations of production. These social relations of production constitute the ‘superstructure’ and will be made to appear universal and thereby ‘outside’ the creation of dominant ruling class.
By becoming transparent as a particular ideology created by and benefiting a specific class within capitalist society, namely, the capitalists, these ‘ruling ideas’ give all members of society the illusion that this is the natural order of things. Resistance, let alone revolution, is effectively stigmatized to be against the norms and values supposedly shared by all. Aiding in the defense of these dominant ideas is the promotion of the primacy of the individual and the mystification of their true reality within society. Marx’s great contribution here is to shatter the ‘idealist’ view of the world and demonstrate the primacy of man’s economic position – “History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this.”
Your parting note on Marx’s theory of revolution could make for an interesting thesis [like mine!] and could be the subject of another blog/response.
Thanks, Paul. I could go on about this post and your comment here. You commented on this post before so it must have more than passing interest for you.
I always thought that The German Ideology was a watershed moment in the Marx/Engels collaboration. For them at the time it must have been a cathartic moment. Interestingly, it’s The German Ideology that many critics of Marx use to dismiss him as a utopian and/or a structuralist. They forget to factor in dialectics into the equation. Silly critics.
Coincidentally, I recently looked through my copy of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. I would have become a Feuerbachian too after reading this book. Hegel was important for Marx’s use of the dialectic, but he had to turn it on its head as he pointed out before he could really develop his theory of history. It took both Hegel and Feuerbach for Marx to develop the materialist conception of history and his theory of class revolution.
I’m reading Norbert Elias at the moment again. He is very critical of most sociologists and I follow him in that. He is also critical of Marx in some ways and I’ll write about his criticisms of Marx in a blog post soon. Have you read Elias’ The Civilizing Process? It’s on my reading table again. He wrote a very cool little book called What is Sociology? that I find fits nicely into my weltanschauung. I am getting reacquainted with Elias and I like it. Another book that proved important for me was Bertell Ollman’s Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. He understands Marx better than most in my estimation.
I have very little patience with commentators on Marx’s work but Ollman and Veblen stand out as very reasonable.
Thank you for this comment. Gets my brain juices flowing again. It’s fine to write a blog in isolation, but it’s better when dialogue happens. In some ways I wish more people familiar with Marx commented here. I know that’s wishful thinking, but still.
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