The subject of mortality may or may not come up overtly in my therapy sessions, but it is always implicit, always hovering about the conversation, always seeking to pull us back down into a special thoughtfulness. Today I was talking with a woman who lamented some of the roads not taken in her life, and, with a chagrined expression, said, “and this is where I will always be, always falling short.”
“What are you so afraid of,” I asked. “It used to be of what people would think, or who would be there to take care of me if I did what I really wanted to do with my life. And today, I guess I am afraid of dying.” “Well, you traded freedom for security and wound up with neither. Isn’t it time you decided it might be worse to relinquish your fearful grip than fear the end of your life?”
If, as is sometimes argued, anything that separates us from nature is pathological, a grand denial, a self-estrangement, or moral evasion, then surely our flight from our mortal nature falls into the “neurotic.” When Jung said “neurosis is the flight from authentic suffering,” he was asserting that we cannot evade suffering, only be captive to its neurotic evasion. Of all of our defenses, our most primitive is denial, greatly abetted by distraction, which is the chief “contribution” our popular culture makes to us. What other culture evolved complex systems to present extravaganzas of sport, exposed flesh, political circus, and programmed violence equal to ours? Well, perhaps ancient Rome, panum et circum, bread and circuses to distract, divert, and entertain the masses. Are we pleased by this comparison?
While it is natural for that slim wafer we call “ego,” namely, who we think we are at any given moment, to bob and wave, and hope the scythe of the Grim Reaper passes over, it is also the surest course to deeper levels of despair and anxiety as inevitability exerts its will. Underneath so many of our neuroses, our pathologies, both private and societal, is the elemental fear of death. This fear is not pathological; it is natural and normal. What becomes pathological is what it makes us do or what it keeps us from doing with our lives.
There are some strange paradoxes to be found here in this fear. Is it not a greater fear to arrive at the end of our journey, however long or short it may prove to be, and recognize that we were not really here, that we did not live our journey? I recall that as a young person I twice walked up to receive an advanced degree thinking, “if I had known they were going to graduate me, I could have enjoyed this whole thing.” I considered then, and even more now, those as rich periods of life lost to anxiety and compulsive coping behavior. I have learned a bit from those and other moments of clarity. At the end of our life would we be inclined to say, “if I knew it was going to end, I could have enjoyed it?”
By “enjoying” I do not mean frivolous wasting of time, or hang-dog obeisance to duty, but having risked investing our energy in whatever provides deep satisfaction to us. If that emotional reciprocity between investment and return is not present, then it is not right for us, however strong our social conditioning. Through our timidity we relinquish the gift of this journey. If there should prove to be an after-life, then it is another life than this one, with another agenda. This is the only one of which we are sure.
Another paradox lies in the fact that it is precisely because our journey is limited that our life has meaning. If we could simply do this or that for a century, and something else for another, then life would lose its bite. The emperor sitting on the veranda with nothing to do but munch grapes and seek diversion has a most miserable life. The slave who lights a fire of freedom in his mind’s eye, the gladiator who says yes to the combat that comes to his door, the woman who sacrifices for her child’s possibilities are infinitely richer. All of them will and do die, but how did they live while here?
So, in the presence of our symptoms: the troubled marriage, the persistent self-sabotage, the eroding addiction, we may all be brought to a larger place by a periodic consideration of mortality. What am I afraid of, really? What shabby excuses are holding me back? What does life ask of me as this point in the journey? Where will I find the most meaningful experiences of my life?
When we ask those questions with sincerity, and summon a measure of courage, we will find that we are too busy living a fuller life to be side-tracked into Angst-ridden swamplands or distracting way-stations. It is all right to be scared; it is not all right to live a scared life.
James Hollis, Ph. D. is a Jungian analyst in Houston, TX, author of 13 books, the most recent of which is What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.