But I recognize that this sentiment, or rather, lack thereof, is not universal. And so it is that several readings over the last few weeks had me pondering exactly what feeling the majority of people took towards the one fact of our existence that we all, without any exceptions, have in common; our mortality.
The first of these was touched on in the previous post; scientific results suggesting that people who have a greater fear of death tend towards conservative political views. And of course, conservative politics has a very strong correlation with religious sentiment, one of the utilities of which is to offer people solace at the thought of their own mortality, by offering (unjustified and unjustifiable) hopes that "they" will somehow survive the death of their brains.
The other was a chapter in Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion on the subject of mortality and how we deal with it. (As a lengthy aside I should make several mentions here. One, to the quality of Dawkin's book- spectacular, as always. Secondly, to my just getting around to reading it. I deliberately avoided reading that book and several others like it until I had expressed my own views here on the blog because I was aware of how similar the subjects would be, and I didn't want to do any more intellectual borrowing than I had already done. This was a wise choice because his arguments essentially cover the same ground as mine have, though I think he is somewhat more civilized than I have been (he is British, after all) though not at the expense of candor.)
Both of these readings got me to reflecting on my own, admittedly, limited experiences with human death. Since several of the readers of this post are likely to be close friends and family, I will not dredge up the specifics of the passings of their near and dear, but will instead try to generalize from my own experiences to trends that can be witnessed in the population at large.
Before I do this, however, I would like to drag one more complicating factor, though I promise it has relevance to the discussion of this post as well as to the future trend of the blog at large. After an email exchange with a friend, which somehow took a turn to personality types, I ended up taking the Meyers-Briggs Personality Test and was told my personality type was INTJ- Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judging. (Again, this is relevant, not just self-indulgent blather. I hate that shite.) While I was initially wary of anything that claims to tell you everything about yourself (astrology anyone?) from a few dozen yes-no questions, the more I read the description of my "type" the more I bought into it. When my wife took the same test, and I read her description, as well as my friend's, I was far more convinced by their astonishing accuracy.
The relevant point is this; reading through the descriptions of several personality types, and reading over the results of the studies which were the subject of the previous post, I have developed a greater appreciation for the innate differences in human minds. According to this Jungian archetype, people of my personality tend to be highly pragmatic, discarding sentiment in order to answer one question- "Does it work?" (This should make sense to the blog's regular readers regarding discussions of religion- it doesn't work, because it manifestly fails at the achieving the two objectives it purports to: identifying truth and making people kinder. It is only since it became difficult to argue that it was achieving either of these objectives that people started attributing a third to it, "Well, but at least it makes people feel better.")
But, again, according to the Jungian theory, the efficacy of a system or solution is not everyone's primary concern. To some people, how something makes them feel, actually is, believe it or not (I almost can't) more important. While we all find it difficult to place ourselves in the head of someone who thinks very differently than we do, one analogy has worked well for me, so I will share it here. I think of it the same way I think of people's differing tastes in food. (As a chef of 8 years, I had a lot of experience with this.) We are often marveled when others don't share our love of a particular dish, or in fact, find it disgusting. While we can't imagine what it is like to be receiving information from their taste-buds when eating that particular dish, we can equate it to our own sensations when we eat something we dislike. We can't put ourselves in their shoes, but we can, on a rational level, appreciate that they simply don't enjoy a sensation that we do.
So this is how I have come to begin to think about the Whys? of how we think. Why is it that some people care waaaay more about how their beliefs make them feel than whether or not they actually have some truth-value? Well, why do some people like pickles and others don't? They just do. Or they don't. They're wired that way. And you can't argue someone into liking pickles. They either do, or they don't.
As I appreciate this fact more and more, I have less expectation that I, or anyone else, will have a whole lot of success convincing the vast majority of people out there that what they really ought to be concerned with is what works, not just what they want to be true. (I say vast majority because INTJs and the very similar INTPs make up a very small percentage of the population, and are the two of the sixteen types most concerned with the big ideas such as how society should work.) We will likely have as much success as the current First Lady is likely to have convincing people to get of their arses and mix in a salad once in a while. Why would you, when you can wipe the fried chicken grease off your fat fingers onto your shirt while you sit in front of Jersey Shore or American Karyoke? (I know, I know, I pound on those two. I just don't know what else is on TV, because I never watch it. Except Deadwood on DVD. Awesome. Bullock is almost certainly an INTJ.)
But we need to be careful here. I don't think we can get away with saying, "It's just in my personality to go with what feels right for me. So I don't care what's true. I'm just gonna believe whatever makes me happy." First of all, even people who would actually say this (and there are hordes and hordes of them) don't really believe it, not in the deepest sense. If they did, wouldn't they all just believe they were Tom Brady, the Patriot's most recent loss not withstanding? If you were just going to "believe" whatever made you most happy, wouldn't you believe you were a good-looking millionaire winner who is married to an even better looking millionaire winner?
The reason people can maintain their belief in an almost certainly fictitious afterlife, but would be unable to sustain the illusion that they were Tom Handsome would be the dearth of evidence that they were, in fact, Tom Terrific. Whereas the illusion of an afterlife can be far more readily sustained due to the lack of expectation of finding any evidence until it is either proven true or false to each of us individually, in which case you wouldn't even have to come to terms with your error.
So even when we acknowledge that some people have a predisposition towards self-comforting illusions, we can also recognize that all but the most insane among them can only pull these off when the illusion concerns something which does not appear in front of them on a regular basis, as a mirror does. (Of course there are people who are convinced that they are Napoleon, and no amount of evidence in the world will sway them.)
This is where the tired, "Yes, but you don't know what happens after death either, so you have just as little evidence as I do," argument comes in. Yes, but I am not the one positing the existence of something without evidence. Once we accept that then there is no stopping it. If one admits that we are allowed to maintain a belief in anything we can make up, no matter how unlikely (and what could be more unlikely than the idea of an animal that lives forever once its body and brain are destroyed?), just so long as it can't be disproven then we essentially have no firm philosophical ground to stand on. In that scenario, I have every much right to believe that I am God, which you can't disprove, as you do to believe in an immortal soul. But I digress...
So let us return to a reasonable place, where life-after-death is an extremely unlikely proposition, and that fact that a majority of the world's people hope for it is more a testament to their personality disposition than to its likelihood. What is the rationale behind the fear that so many people seem to feel at the thought of death?
Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, fear of death makes perfect sense, and is rivaled only by fear of social rejection, both of which destroy our chances of reproduction. (Is this the evolutionary logic behind the famous #1 fear of adults, public speaking? That you could destroy all future reproductive chances in one fell swoop by appearing the fool in front of the entire tribe? Hmm...intriguing.) And none of us, myself or the most battle-hardened veteran, are immune to the surge of adrenaline and terror that comes over us when faced with the prospect of an imminent and violent death. But this is different than the rational contemplation of our immortality that we are allowed when pondering our lives or watching a loved one's health deteriorate.
To answer the question above, there is no rationale. Why on earth would someone who claims to believe that they are going to spend all eternity in heavenly bliss be afraid of death at all? Wouldn't it be the most welcome thing in life? (Is this why the Catholics of the Middle Ages had to be so stern about suicide? Because prior to the Enlightenment and in that religion-addled age, there actually were enough zealots who were eager for death? And some religions still glorify it...) In reality though, and studies bear this out and personal experience seems to agree, those who have the least reason to fear death, those who claim it is not an end, but a transition, are very often those who live in abject terror of it.
We can only conclude that death is to someone of this wiring akin to a very strong distaste for a certain food. There is probably very little chance of alleviating their fear through rational argument, just as there is very little chance of convincing someone with narrowly-aligned taste-buds that they really ought to enjoy a wider variety of cuisine.
And this is too bad. Because while I have had few legitimate reasons to fear for my life (though I have a had a couple, near-misses in a car at 75 mph, etc.) I have tried to regularly force myself to contemplate death's inevitability, without dwelling on it. And there are certainly some things about it I find distasteful. Sitting on my couch writing, with my 4 year old daughter at my side, learning to write her letters on her new "computer," I cannot help but hope that my mortal existence continues long enough for me to witness her growth and maturity, to seeing her learn to write not just letters but words, and maybe even someday put her old man to shame as a writer, since her brain already seems clearly wired in that direction. Equally, I adore my wife, and hope to grow old with her.
But beyond these two considerations, the thought of death is not frightening to me. There are days where I feel the burden of being who I am (a Mastermind, according to the Meyers-Briggs- hilarious) and am exhausted from my tendency to take on roles I don't feel deeply about, but can't stand to see handled poorly, such as I regularly do at work or in social situations or in Left 4 Dead, and the thought of not having to be is even somewhat comforting- ahh, like a good nap.
While some will find that thought morbid, I would disagree. It is simply an acceptance of the inevitable and an attempt to make the most of what we have. And I feel somewhat sorry, hopefully without condescension, for those who can't come to terms with reality in that way. I can't imagine living in abject terror of a moment which is racing backwards in time at you like a locomotive. Of course, people don't actually live in abject terror, that would be paralyzing. Instead they fill their lives with distractions, but this only makes them all the more unprepared to face death when it does arrive, either for them or one they love.
Also, I should add that a parent considering the life (I can't even type the other word) of their child, doesn't really fit into this. That thought is so absolutely horrible that I don't see how one does anything but ignore it in the hopes that they never have to face it. As Theoden says, "No parent should ever have to bury their child." (There's a bone for you, fellow nerds.)
But ultimately, death is something we all must face. And how we plan to face it, whether with fear mingled with false hope or with calm, mature acceptance, goes a long way towards determining how we live all the days between this one and that.
Or, if you've gotten this far in the post, I really could have saved you a lot of time by just posting this: