Deep down we all know that our lifespan is limited: that some day we are going to die. But there is something strange about this human awareness of death. If we were to be continuously reminded of the blunt factual limits of our lifespan, this acute awareness of our inevitable death might hamper us in our daily activities. Therefore in daily life, most people tend to not think too often about it. We tend to forget. Even when looking at our life in a somewhat wider time perspective, we concentrate mostly on our recent years and the years we expect to come next. So in ordinary daily life, the perception of the concrete limits of our lifespan remains somewhat fuzzy. This fuzziness is a mechanism that helps to shield us from fear, indifference or desperation.
When death creeps closer, keeping up that shield of fuzziness becomes more difficult. Very old people, or those with a fatal disease, are often more acutely aware of life’s limits. They need more urgently to find a way to come to terms with their own mortality. Concentrating on social activity (such as being a grandparent) or on religion (which may offer a less limited, less final perspective) can often help. But if fear gets the upper hand, the result is what psychologists and psychiatrists call “death anxiety”.
When this happens to otherwise healthy adults who are not yet about to die, death anxiety is often seen as a kind of disorder, or as symptom of a disorder. It certainly can prevent people from functioning adequately, bringing about obsessive thoughts about death, nightmares, panic attacks etc. But if you think of it in a matter-of-fact way, such death anxiety is an understandable consequence of being acutely aware of your own expectable death. We might say that death anxiety is actually a natural reaction to having a less fuzzy, more realistic perception of your life’s limits.
Research suggests a correlation between depression and death anxiety. Depressed people will more often have signs of death anxiety; people with death anxiety will more probably be depressive as well. For now I will skip the question of which causes what. I just want to make clear that when you are very depressed, the general mechanism of “fuzzy shielding” often appears to stop working. Depression often comes with a more realistic (and maybe in turn more depressing) lifespan awareness. Here are two pictures to summarize all the above:
You might think that the combination of depression and death anxiety, implying great fear of death, might at least counteract any tendency to commit suicide. Unfortunately this is not true – on the contrary, in many cases it will only strengthen suicide thoughts. There are several reasons for this. To name two of them, death anxiety will in whatever way make “death” a more frequent, sometimes obsessively recurring topic in your mind: eventually you get so used to thinking about death that when searching for a solution for your problems, you will almost automatically think of the option “death” too. Also, death anxiety can by itself become such a fearful torment that it makes suicide seem even more attractive than before: if you know that you are going to die anyway, then why not save yourself from further anxiety torment and muster the courage to do it right now?
If I were to tell you here that I have a solution, that I do know how to live with an acute awareness of the inevitability of death, that I know how to handle this most basic one of all fears, I would be lying. I myself have often enough considered suicide to know that, regardless what uplifting Smilies might happily try to tell you, there is no simple-and-easy solution. Should we try in some way to restore, regain the “fuzziness shield” that protects many people from death anxiety? Or should we try, as in counseling projects for the elderly and fatally ill, to concentrate on social activities or on religious beliefs that may lend some meaningfulness to the remaining days of our life? In what way can we prevent tomorrow’s death from destroying our life today?
In essence, this will always remain a dilemma. The more we manage to appreciate and enjoy our life, the harder it will be to live with the blunt fact of death awaiting us. And the less we can tolerate and enjoy our life, the easier it will become to prefer death.
Possibly a small-scale, partial solution can be found in learning to temporarily shift one’s concentration: shifting from your future death to this actual second, from dominating overall perspectives to the little touchable details of your immediate environment, from ghastly fearful emotions to the small signs-of-life from your own still-alive body.
First, maybe in my post of tomorrow, I need to say a little more about this fuzziness thing.
• tip: No tip today. Or it might be just what I am saying now to myself: Why not shut off your computer? Try to do something! Go wash the dishes! Put clean sheets on your bed!