In discussing death, it is important to take into consideration both the realities of physical death and the various layers of symbolic death. Both are ever-present realities in the unconscious mind, but generally suppressed or repressed out of conscious awareness. Becker (1973), in his extremely important work The Denial of Death, writes that it would be impossible to live in constant conscious awareness of death. Such awareness would be too overwhelming and drive people to neurosis or psychosis.
Living oblivious to the reality of death (and human limitation) is equally as destructive as to live in the constant fear of it. To live a truly authentic and genuine life, one must face the reality of death and limitation. However, this must not be done in a superficial manner. In Dante’s Inferno, the journey through hell was necessary to be able to find heaven. Similarly, the individual’s journey through death issues allows for life and love to be experienced more completely. As May (1991) points out, it is the therapist’s role to play the part of Virgil, guiding those who seek therapy through this hell into life.
A central premise of existential psychology and philosophy is that part of healthy living is learning to balance the awareness of death with resources that allow the person to not be overwhelmed by it. While no one fully accomplishes this task, the more a person is able to find this balance the better they will be able to live a genuinely fulfilling life. However, death and the terror of death is intricately connected to the other existential themes, making the resolution that much more difficult.
Denials of Death
There are many ways people choose to avoid dealing with the reality of death. In dealing with this avoidance, Becker (1973) extrapolates from the work of Otto Rank to discuss the heroic. In this conception, people seek to be heroic with the belief that if they can achieve this hero status, the rules of death will no longer ally to them. This can be done in many ways. Becker uses the example of Freud himself stating that Freud’s investment in the development of psychoanalysis was his way to overcome death by creating something that will live beyond his death. Through being remembered, symbolically Freud never dies. This is similar to many cultural and religious beliefs that as long as an ancestor is remembered, they still exist.
In a very similar manner, Yalom (1980) discusses two ways of denying death: 1) the ultimate rescuer and 2) specialness. Both are tied to the heroic. With the ultimate rescuer, the heroic is an external hero while in the conception of specialness, the hero is internal. According to Yalom, the ultimate rescuer is an external hero-like (or god-like) figure who saves the person from death. Many of the great historic myths of history and modern society reveal this theme. In the conception of specialness, the individual believes there is something inside them that is so special that they would not be allowed to die. They have something unique to offer the world that the world needs, so surely the rules of death can’t apply to them.
Tillich (1952), in his book The Courage to Be, purports that to truly embrace being (or our life) the reality of non-being must be faced. This powerful conception takes the issue much deeper. For one, facing death must entail not only the ending of physical life but the possibility of nonbeing. While the possibility of nonbeing is not intended to deny the possibility of life after death, it brings with it the potential for a deeper understanding of being.
Nonbeing also brings another way to deny death. Many people deny the reality of death by avoiding living. While this is a more abstract concept, the power it can be illustrated in many ways. For example, many people avoid investing in relationships and experiencing love (being) because of the fear of being hurt or rejected (nonbeing, death). Similarly, some people believe that if they don’t really live, they won’t really die. They go through life terrified of living because of the deeper terror of death.
Another important denial of death is religious denial. Many religious people deny the terror or reality of death through belief in immortality. This is not to state that immortality doesn’t exist. That isn’t the issue. The primary issue is that death remains terrifying even if there is life after death. This is also not intended to imply that people cannot work through their death issues and find peace in approaching death. Rather, it is advocating for this can be accomplished, at least to a large degree. However, achieving a place where death can be approached peacefully requires facing the terror side of death.
The religious person may have complete confidence in life after death and that this new life will be better than life on earth. Yet they still may fear death. Death is unknown. Death is beyond our control. Death is lonely.
Many committed religious people are surprised to find themselves approaching death with fear when they’ve lived their lives confident of salvation. Often this occurs because of that confidence. They have lived their life focusing on salvation in order to deny the other realities of death. For many, it may not be life after death that is terrifying, but the process of dying. Some are able to successfully deny this aspect of death by focusing on life after death. For death to truly be faced, it must entail the entirety of death.
Death is the great symbol of all things finite. Not only is death a very real terror. Whether faced by choice or due to some external event forcing it into awareness, death awareness invites into consciousness all of the terrors of human limitation: our inability to know, our inability to control ourselves, and our inability to control others. People live most of their lives in this heroic fantasy that allows them to ward off the reality of these issues. However, death continuously challenges these fantasies.
Symbolic Forms of Death
This symbolic side of death has some extremely important implications for contemporary existential thought. Hergenhahn (2001) suggests the first true postmodern philosopher was Kierkegaard, who is often considered the father of existential philosophy. One of the important themes in postmodern thought is the limitations on our ability to know, in particular through a singular epistemology. Existentialism, with its shared focus on the limitations of humans (along with a respect for the human potential), aligns itself here with postmodernism. But it takes it further in suggesting that this limitation has psychological consequences.
Humans want to know. The now clichéd phrase “knowledge is power” is a great example. It is believed that if something is known, then it can be controlled. This is a dangerous illusion on two fronts. First, that reality can be fully known; second, that it can be controlled. This bridges nicely into death as a symbol of the inability of people to control themselves, others around them, or the world.
A common presenting issue in therapy is the desire to be in more control. Therapists often acquiesce to this goal without consideration for the deep complexities involved in this issue. Control is often an illusion. Granted, it is an illusion that provides comfort, but it is a false comfort. If this is truly what the client desires, this may be a good therapeutic outcome. However, many people when reporting that they want to be in more control are actually meaning they want to get away from the anxiety of feeling out of control. This can be accomplished in many other ways besides building a believable illusion of control.
In existential thought, reification becomes an important addition to the defense mechanisms. Reification is the belief or tendency to see things as reality or as having an actual existence when they do not. In other words, reification is the process of making real that which is not. An example of reification occurs when the abstract is turned into something with a concrete, black-and-white existence. This is often what psychology, theology, and the sciences do. Yet, whenever something abstract is made concrete, something is lost.
Take, for example, the principle of love. Love is one of the greatest principles of many of the world religions, of philosophy/ethics, and of some branches of psychology. Few would deny that love has an incredible power to change and improve the world. However, when love is condensed down into a code, a set of laws or techniques, or a how-to manual, the essence of love is lost. It becomes behavioral instead of a complete, centered act of an individual. But at the same time, when it is reduced down it appears more comprehendible and achievable. This is no less true than the reality that any three-dimensional object must be simplified to be placed in a two-dimensional form. No matter how many illusions we create to make the two-dimensional object appear three-dimensional, no illusion can take the place of the experience possible when the objects is experienced three-dimensionally.
Structure is a distortion of reality. Reality is abstract, complex, and fluid. But people tend to be terrified of the abstract and the unknown, so they create structure and a reified reality. This soothes the anxiety but produces a deeper loss. To return to the title of Tillich’s book, The Courage to Be, it requires tremendous courage to live in the face of anxiety and death. To choose to deny these limits a person’s ability to live genuinely and authentically. It limits one’s ability to truly experience the depths of love and relationship. In order to experience the beauty of life, one must allow themselves to become vulnerable to death and anxiety. Stated more succinctly, it takes great courage to truly be.
The various symbolic forms of death all point back to the reality of death. This is part of what makes them so terrifying. It has been said that all anxiety is death anxiety. While if seen merely as literal death, this seems to be too grandiose a statement of the power of death. However, if taken to be inclusive of all the symbolic forms of death or human limitations, this becomes a much more realistic statement. However, there still should be hesitation in reifying such a concept as anxiety down to solely an issue of death.
To truly live one must open oneself up to truly dying. A common phrase or cliché that is used within existential therapy at times is ‘what would you do if you knew you were going to die next week or next month? How would you live differently?’ One of the first times I taught a class on humanistic/existential theory and intervention, a student told a moving story about his wedding which prompted me to ask a very different question, “How would your life and relationships be different if you knew that you and your loved ones were going to live forever?” At times, I’ve even added on this question “without physically aging.” The responses have been powerful. In general, the most common response is “I would start to take my loved ones for granted.” The other response which occasionally comes up is “then I could start really investing in the relationship because I’d no longer be afraid of losing them.”
These are both powerful statements. The former response illustrates the beauty of death. It suggests that most people if they knew they were going to live forever, would not treasure their loved ones or the world around them nearly as much. There is something about finiteness that allows people to experience the beauty surrounding them at a more profound level.
However, the latter answer shows the powerful ‘fear of living’ defense. Loss is so painful that people often avoid investing too much in anything. When they do invest, they become terrified of losing it. The avoidance of pain or uncomfortable emotion, in general, is one of the most common sources of anxiety. People don’t want to love what could be taken away. When this is bound to the fear of losing a treasured person or aspect of life, it is greatly intensified.
In summary, death is often one of the most powerful forces which keep us from truly living. However, death is also a gift that allows us to experience life more deeply and treasure the gifts in our lives much more. The gift of death becomes most powerful when it is opened and the individual is able to face the realities of this gift.
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Created 2004; Never been updated.