Why are Americans afraid of Death?

6 05 2009

Between the swine flu hysteria and postponed demise of The Boston Globe, I’ve been thinking a lot about Death lately–mainly why Americans are so damned afraid of it.

Death and I have been friends for a long time. Docs weren’t sure I’d live past 10 yrs, so Death and I hung out quite a bit when I was a kid. Starting with my grandfather’s death when I was 10 and my stepfather’s death last year, Death has been a pretty constant presence among my birth family. And, of course, there was a time not long ago when I witnessed AIDS decimate so many members of my “life family”.

As a result, I’ve never been afraid of Death. I figure it’s both my oldest and longest friend–there for both my first..and last..breath. I recognize that, from that first breath, all of us begin the dance, the glory, of dying. As a Shaman, I believe that Birth is not possible without Death. In fact, I’ve often thought that the old phrase “life and death” is backwards. The accurate description is “death and life”. You simply can’t get to life, to birth, to resurrection if you will, without Death. Both should be cherished equally for their beauty and their mystery.

So why are we so afraid of it?

Because we can’t control it.

And our world lives (and dies!) by the illusion of control. We schedule our lives down to the last minute. Parents and spouses everywhere schedule “quality time” with their kids…schedule it (how generous!). We pick out our kids’ schools before they’re born, insist on learning their sex while still in the womb, and–increasingly–even schedule deliveries. Mystery is messy…and time-consuming. And who has time?

Yep, it’s a nice, contained, controlled world we’ve created for ourselves and we freak out when anything–no matter how far-fetched threatens that false security (Joe Biden’s swine flu travel guides, anyone?).

There’s just one catch: Death doesn’t play that game. It’s the one mystery Americans haven’t succeeded in wrestling to submission. You just can’t “schedule” Death. In fact, you–yes YOU–don’t even know if you’ll live to read the rest of this blog (you made it to the end of the sentence, so that’s a good sign..for you…and for me).

And that uncertainty scares the shit out of us…which is too bad, because it manifests in some pretty unattractive ways:
— It makes us treat loved ones who are dying as projects to be managed (tucked away and drugged) instead of brothers, sisters, lovers, spouses, friends to be cherished.
— It makes us jump through ridiculous hoops to preserve our own illusion of eternal youth, figuring that appearances matter to Death and looking 35–even a plastic 35–can keep it at bay.
— Worse, our fear of Death makes us a society of “dead men walking”.

Here’s what I mean. The more you avoid Death, the more it boxes you in, until–eventually–it has walled you into your own personal Groundhog Day–where you live the same life over and over and over and over—a safe life, to be sure, but a dead one nonetheless. A life where you’re terrified to move or change because to do either means you relinquish control…and, when you do that, you welcome Death. To paraphrase an Eastern mystic, “if you fear Death, then you fear Life!”

One of the saddest conversations I’ve had over the past three years was with a good friend of mine. We were all having dinner at our house. As we were wont to do, our husbands were upstairs chatting (probably about how difficult it is to be married to us!!) and my friend and I were in the kitchen downstairs, drinking and cooking. I was telling him how I felt like I’d been called to start a new adventure in my life… one that represented a radical departure and one that, most likely, would take us away from Boston. “But you already know everyone here, your business is here,” he said, openly wondering if I had lost my mind (thankfully, I had, but that’s another story). “I can’t imagine having to start over,” he said.

When he said that, it broke my heart. Here was someone–only in his early 50s–saying that he was done with life. He had climbed to ONE summit..and for the rest of his life he was just going to sit on that summit–dead on the inside–until his physical body was done with him. He’d have dinner with the same people in the same restaurants ordering the same thing receiving the same complements over and over and over because that was safe, that he could control.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to climb one summit (or even ten) and then just stop. To be a living Soul trapped inside a dead heart. No wonder so many “successful” people numb the yearnings of their souls with sleeping pills and/or stiff drinks. After all, who wants to be awake when you’re dead? Better to be asleep!

The whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite stories, from the book “Ilusions”. It’s a story of river creatures that live their lives clinging to vines that dangle in the rushing river. One day, one of the creatures let’s go. He gets the shit knocked out of him a couple of times before he releases his fear and relinquishes control…and starts to gently float down the river and away from his fellow creatures.

I don’t know about you, but the river feels pretty damned good. There’s warmth (and life) in that mystery. Let’s dive in!




3 responses

8 05 2009
Should there be an expiration date to health care access? « Moment to Moment

[…] also to the cycle of life. Are we standing in the way of Life by blocking Death (because we so fear Death)? And what kind of life does that give us, […]

11 05 2009

To not fear death, it is helpful to undersand both fear and death. FEAR unfortunately has been coopted and demonized for centuries to control people. From pergatory and hell to judgement day, fear of death has been similarly cultivated. Death need not have either negative or postivie connotations, but is best understood as part of our journey and potentially liberating (rebirth on the other hand…). Fear – as with all forces – can also be understood postively as a force protecting us from harm, guiding our steps. How many times have we feared something that did not come to pass – that is the teaching of the Goddess of Fear. Fear not. Ultimately, fear of death is related to the idea of judgement. The truth on that front is and always has been that there will be no judgement, that there was never to be any judgement. Judge not.

11 05 2009

Ahhh…..judgement. A quaint human construct. To me, fear of death is mainly about fear of mystery. It’s the fear of realizing that our time here truly is all folly…and, at that moment of Death, of realizing that you squandered the joy of that folly by taking the whole thing so damned seriously…and by not letting the beauty of your own soul folly. Guess that’s why it’s good that the cosmos allows do-overs. It’s not going anywhere!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: