Saturday, February 11, 2012

So whatcha got to worry about?

I don't think about death much. I mean, I am cognizant of that fact that it will happen to me someday, the same way I am cognizant of the fact that I have to go back to work on Monday morning. And I feel roughly the same way about my inescapable mortality as I do about the practical inescapablity of that 5:30am alarm; a coming annoyance that will signify the end of something I enjoy. But it is precisely the inevitability of both of these events that implies the futility of worrying, fretting, or growing overly agitated by the fact of their inexorable approach.

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:


  1. Nice post. I've been thinking about this question of why the religious seem to fear death more than nonbelievers a lot lately, funny you touched on it.

    Your Type is
    Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging
    Strength of the preferences %
    33 25 12 33

  2. Lol. That's funny. My preferences were more like 33 100 65 12 or something like that. I would have suspected your introverted to be like 150. ;)


    Actually don't. I rather like it.

    This is in the family of things I was thinking about when I wrote my birthday post. Probably because I have no expectations for an afterlife, dead and alive both strike me as acceptable states. I happen to really enjoy living, so I'm inclined to continue in this state for as long as I can, but if I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, I won't be around to worry about it. I'm far more concerned, as you touched on lightly, with the death of people I care about, not because I worry for their immortal souls, but out of my selfish desire to continue to revel in their existence.

    Probably I've already shared this anecdote, but I think it's instructive in a number of situations: Although neither of my parents were religious, when I was 6 I asked my mother to start taking me to Catholic mass. I remember having an impression of god and biblical characters as something like reading at school: it was something to learn about and it had some metaphorical applications in the world, but I never thought of it as literally real, and it didn't even really occur to me that I was supposed to think it was. I asked to go to church because I believed that my grandparents, who were extremely devout, wouldn't love me if I didn't. Sometime shortly after my first communion, it started to dawn on me that I was supposed to take it seriously. I stopped going, because that was just not going to happen.

    For people raised in faith, acknowledging that faith doesn't actually work, even to make them feel better (a bar set pretty low) usually leads to the conclusion that somehow they have failed to understand and/or practice it properly. Ask any atheist from a religious background (myself included), and I think you'll find that regardless of the strength of their current convictions the ghost of guilt and failure sometimes likes to hang out around the edges.

    And if you're faith isn't working, isn't that a personal failing on your part? And if you're insufficiently faithful in life, doesn't that bode poorly for your eternal soul?

    Incidentally, I'd guess that this ties in with the conservative/faithful resentment of hedonistic heathens. There they are being all miserable waiting for glory in death and people like me are living in sin and delirious happiness. The afterlife probably seems like a long time to wait for revenge...I mean reward.

  4. Also, many hours I spent with the public library's copy of David Keirsey's "Please Understand Me," a variant on the Meyers-Briggs sorter. I'm INFP, also less than 1% of the population, and it's spot on.

  5. Again, I hesitate to put too much stock in the thing, but I find it amusing/ interesting. Basically, all the people whose company I enjoy most fit into the one of the four on the INxx spectrum, which are all rarer personality types.

    And another thing, which I didn't put in the post cause it was irrelevant (and conceited), but apparently that sub group accounts for less than 6% of the population, but over 66% of the genius level IQs. Hmm... not surprising, really.

    I'm gonna go read about you and try to crack that nut of a head of yours. :)

  6. Hmm other tests have scored me as INTP, this one had me as INTJ- though in all cases my lowest score has been on the last judging/perception (for the record on that test 78/62/81/17). Of course, as you note it somewhat useful as we know personality is far more complex, having at least these attributes which exist along fairly large spectrum.

    As for the topic of the post, I don't think I can overstate the importance of people coming to grips with the fact that some day they will die. "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 think you're spot on, and I would go further that understanding that some day you will be dead means that you can make better decisions in life knowing that you don't get to live forever. Realizing that opportunities and other people are time sensitive is an important part of the puzzle that far too many people ignore. Really good post.

  7. Thanks Brian.

    There were some parts of the personality description which I thought fitted you better than I, particularly the Mastermind sub-type. My brain has never been terribly proficient at complex strategy games, or at least nothing like on the scale that yours is. I tend to get stuck in a rut where I see one or two possibilities, but most of them remain closed to me.

  8. I also wasted the whole morning getting distracted by IQ tests, the Mensa test, etc. which are a ton of fun, since I love those kinds of puzzles, but that just basically left me feeling like an under-achiever.

  9. this post is close to home for me since i did indeed grow up very devout to a ridiculous cult and then finally tossed it, but as megan so aptly stated " regardless of the strength of their current convictions the ghost of guilt and failure sometimes likes to hang out around the edges". i find it sneaks up on me when i least expect it.
    death is a tough one for me especially since i totally bought into the idea that i would live forever on the earth after being resurrected (if i died at all). yeah, i know, wtf?! i am a smart girl and figured it out, but it did take me longer than it should have.
    so while all the above totally makes logical sense to me there is still a lingering emotional connection to the old stuff that i find ludicrous.
    is is something i work on all the time...
    and for the record i am an ITFJ. 1-3% of the population. and the description was bizarrely accurate.
    later peeps....

  10. I should also add, regarding the video, that in the last several books I have read, each of the authors (Dawkins, Pinker, etc.) have at some point wrapped up an argument by saying, "Well, you could read this chapter, or you could just watch this scene from Monty Python, since they actually make the point much more succinctly."

    You wanna talk about TRUE genius...

  11. I doubt you'd find my ENFP rating surprising.

    My suspicion that fear of death and the hope of an afterlife, at least in my own observations, plays into the religious mind a lot differently than this. That is, I don't think the promise of eternal life is the big selling point to a convert, but rather the vast framework of symbolic meanings, systems of ordering, and general feeling of purpose (not to mention the community, hierarchy, and attachment to/placement within history). The evangelical christian initiation process, though it focuses initially on the afterlife ("where will you go when you die?") presupposes an intimation of immortality, but then offers induction into an immediate re-purposing of the present and a re-telling of the inductee's past.

    The afterlife in the more ordered religions also doesn't function only (or even primarily!) as a mollification of the fear of death (and, while I don't know yet what you think of the Trans-humanists, I'd argue that they, generally atheistic, are more terrified than most), but rather an assuaging of current misery. That is, accept your current poverty, endless toil, and general sorrow because one day it will be better--parallel to the "american dream" or "arbeit macht frei" [I really suspect that the christian afterlife, by the way, is one of the roots of the Progress Narrative].

    Animistic and "pagan" religions have less formalized and more nebulous ideas of the afterlife--hades is a shadowy, grey realm, as are the realms of the dead in celtic and germanic story, and the animists' lingering ancestors or the dead who have become wisps of spirit within forests would seem to offer less comfort for one concerned with their own death than those struggling to understand why the living feel or intuit those who have passed to be, beyond logic or reasoning, still with them.

    Either way, I think we can probably take great comfort knowing that death is something lots and lots of other people have tried and succeeded greatly at, and so we'll probably be able to do it, too, without much training or practice.

  12. I am greatly surprised by the E, actually.

    And I had a longer response here, but my effing computer has turned "backspace" into a "go back in the browser button" and it deleted what I had to say. The gist of it was that every religious person I can think of, personally, and I know a lot, is either genuinely terrified of death or is playing a barely subconscious versionof Pascal's Wager. I think the later makes up the vast majority of the believing population.

    As for the last, I would like to reframe your narrative of pagan religions. I would prefer "... below logic or reasoning" or "... without logic or reasoning," or something to that effect, while we're in the business of using prepositions to create an epistomological hierarchy.

    And as for the very last- absolutely.

  13. I think you are on to something. The way our brains are organized probably determines how open we are to asking questions and changing ourselves in response, at the risk of our relationships with others. Even more important, I think it's likely our personalities determine which questions keep us awake at night.

    To look at it another way, it seems to me that many people have a sense of wonder about life and the universe -- the fact that something exists rather than nothing, that we exist, that the natural world is both intricate and resiliant, etc. We gaze at the stars, or take a walk in the woods, or watch our child begin to speak or read, and we are amazed.

    Some of us respond by wanting to know how things work, becoming scientists and thinkers. Some seek to protect what we value, becoming activists and leaders. And others fall to our knees and give thanks. I suppose that those the last category are probably the artists and the religious.

    Our personalities likely have a lot to do with this response as well.

  14. I like people. A lot. Even (and sometimes particularly) the dumb ones. I also have no fear of public speaking or talking to strangers, even powerful ones that might fire me if I say something wrong. I even derive pleasure from it. I'm trying to square that with your proposed evolutionary fear of social rejection leading to limited reproductive opportunities.

    I don't mean to be cantankerous or contrary, but I wonder if we're running up against a geographical problem here. I know many religious people, but very few christians comparatively. And even those christians, of the pentecostal/charismatic/evangelical sort, seem to focus more on the "joy of their god" present in their current life, rather the afterlife. The non-christian religious sorts (lots of buddhists, pagan, and new-age sorts around here) seem to have a "yes, but why dwell?" sentiment concerning death. But if we were just going by personal experience, I'd point out that I'm mostly surrounded by atheists, many of whom do talk much more often of death than I remember evangelical/fundamentalists doing. I doubt there's any conclusion to be drawn from that, except maybe that my atheist friends are more comfortable talking about death, or find ease by talking about it.

    Were we building an epistemological hierarchy? You know I don't like hierarchies, but I love subtleties of connotations...How about "outside of" logic or reasoning? I'd even accept "despite" (though not "in spite").

  15. First of all, I find it amusing, and charming, to scroll through this growing list of comments and reflect back on those Gordon dining hall chats that four of the participants here participated in, and which three out of four of us surely remember. :)

    As for the rest of this, I have read and considered your replies, but don't have a lot left to say that I don't think would be repeating myself, either from above or in a previous post. And that doesn't really interest me.

    As to the little I would like to add- Jes, while I understand and appreciate your noble vision of religion, I can't get with it. To me, it is the very opposite of the artistic endeavor- one is liberating, joyful and creative, the other stultifying, confining and soul-crushing. I acknowledge that not everyone sees it that way, but I have yet to see anything that convinces me otherwise.

    Rhyd- My ignorance will likely shine through in this statement, but I don't think of the intro/ extrovert dichotomy as having to do with "liking" people. (And the Rhyd I remember drinking coffee with never had a whole lot of good to say about the passersby, though that was a younger, more angsty time for us all...) But I think it has more to do with, as they say, where you get your "energy" from. (I use that only in the colloquial sense, of "I have no energy today," not the "The energies in this room are powerful," sense.) When I am in a room full of people, I leave it feeling more drained, more stupid, than when I entered. Apparently others feel the opposite. The Rhyd I am thinking of as introverted is the one who could lay on the floor of a darkened room with nary a but a candle to see by and a single song on repeat. For 4 hours. Straight. That, to me, is a highly introverted tendency.

    And as for your contraryness- no, please keep it coming. No one else will take up with me. Brian will, if I dump on Buddhism, or don't sound properly libertarian enough for him, but mostly if he disagrees he just shakes his head a sighs (yes, I can hear it from Nepal) and Jes will, kinda, but she is always way to polite to really intellectually throw down with.

    But the gist of this wasn't really about our relationship with death, that was merely a vehicle for me to discuss my growing realization that differences in personality and in people's intellectual ability to grasp nuance and the rigors of logic make it just as unlikely for differing view points to ever be reconciled as the ideologies themselves do.

    As for quibiling about grammar, I'll do that all day. :)

  16. I do enjoy these conversations, esp b/c it's been years since I've seen Rhyd and b/c I enjoy drawing parallels from the discussion on religion to a topic that's particularly dear to me. One question that I've been puzzling over in response to your original post, Rob: was your discussion of the Myer-Briggs test intended to make the point that Ts are more likely to be skeptics and Fs believers? I thought so, but looking at the personality types of the people who have responded, I'm counting three Fs ... assuming there are at least a couple skeptics there.

  17. No, no. I no almost nothing of the actual theory behind the Meyers-Briggs and would never presume to start making such specific declarations without a lot more research. I don't have any idea how all of that correlates. The point was more what rang true for me in the discussion of INTJs; that their primary concern is with what works, with what is efficient. I recognize this in myself everyday. I cut people off (as politely as I have the energy for) in conversations and articulate their point for them because they are talking around what they want to say. So my point was that while I have spent so much of this blog articulating why I think various things that many people take for granted- religion, simplistic red/blue political views, monogamy, etc- DON'T work, I am starting to understand that when people come back and say, "Yeah, I don't care whether it works or not," (not so plainly, of course) that the chasm between my point of view and theirs may be wider than I originally thought.

    Doesn't mean I'll stop running my mouth, just as I imagine you often feel your articulation of your causes falls on deaf ears, or Rhyd's bid to smash all us bourgeoisie doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. We can all just stand up for what's important to us and hope for the best, I guess.

    As for the specifics of those "Fs"- no, Jen probably has even more conviction in her atheism than I, she had to suffer through 20 years of being a Jehovah's Witness, after all, and Meghan, as she says above, was a nonbeliever since she was a child, and just attended Mass on the hopes her grandparents would love her more if she did. (Which is painfully sad to type, even about someone else.)

  18. Am I the only stupid person that reads this. Everyone else seems educated, articulate and I think I read that someone is a freaking chef. WTF, where is my invite to dinner, I got four hungry kids that come home from school everyday!

    Anyway I really liked this. I laughed a couple of times and overall, it was just a fun read. I found I'm a : INTP 78,50,38,22. but what I think would be interesting is to have family or friends take the test for YOU. Then compare.

    I dread the death of my parents, fear the death of a child and hope for a pain free quick death for myself. I don't think much about it, nor is it something I talk about.

  19. kneejerk:

    I highly doubt you are as dumb as you play on TV. ;)

    And yes, the people who comment on here are all, in my view anyway, extraordinarily intelligent, even if I disagree with their stances on many things. They all just happen to be people who I have drifted towards in my life because they were smarter than the average bear. You're the only regular commentator who isn't a personal friend, at least in RL.

    The chef was me. And the midwest is a long way to fly to feed 4 kids... :)