On some subconscious level, nearly everything we think and do is a distraction from the fact we are going to die. We intuitively know this at some point. Like the iPhone, we do not, and are not meant to, last forever. From the moment we exist we begin the process of dying, continuously moving one step closer to the inevitable. All religion seems to be centered on the event of physical death, but this article is not about religion. I don’t know what happens after death and neither do you; but I do know I will die someday. So far this is an axiom that has yet to show exception.
I believe there are two existential truths we learn in this universe that define us as human. First, we come to realize we are separate beings, alone in our unique world. Second, we are mortal and cannot stop the inevitable decay of our physical self.
We cover up existential loneliness by constructing an ego to defend ourselves against the world we are separate from, and we seek connection with others to ease this pain. Sometimes it is enough.
We cover up our inevitable death by distracting ourselves and hoping we just don’t notice. We jump around chasing things and achieving goals, thinking this is what we are meant to do. The problem with this strategy is if we don’t face and accept our inevitable death, we cannot fully live. This distraction pulls us from the present moment into the future, where our death will ultimately occur. It creates a subconscious existential anxiety that distracts us from fully living in this present moment.
Have you noticed how anxious people around you are in spite of the fact we are living through the most prosperous time in human history. There are more of us medicated with mood altering drugs, both prescription and self-directed. There seem to be more self-help books and blogs than people that read them, although their effectiveness at actually helping people is questionable. After all, if they really helped why would we need so many? We invent problems and distractions. In the comfortable first world we even had to make up a term for problems that we shouldn’t even regard as problems. We keep struggling with the same psychological issues in spite of having more material goods, food, medical care and comfort than at any time in history. The more we have, it seems, the sicker we become in many ways. What is going on here?
The first world problem is invented to distract us from our lost purpose and meaning. The midlife crisis is really a realization of our inevitable death, but we don’t recognize it for what it is. This truth becomes more urgent and real as our bodies are not quite as resilient after a night of drinking or several hours on the basketball court. As the mortality tables quietly escort people from our cohort to the other side and the age jokes on birthday cards start to become a little less funny, we realize our fate. This is largely subconscious, processed and suppressed by a brain that is trying to protect us from harm.
It is comfortable not to think about these issues, but comfort often covers up fear, and that is the root emotion we are dealing with. Most of human behavior is rooted in fear because fear equals survival. Once you understand this, life become a bit easier to understand. If you are in the middle third of life and drifting with low level anxiety that you can’t quite pinpoint; if you know something is wrong but just can’t quite define it; maybe you need to face this fear.
There are two paths, acceptance and denial. Think back to the scene in The Matrix when Morpheus gives Neo the choice between the red pill (acceptance) and the blue pill (denial). Both might work, but taking the middle ground is impossible. We all engage in a version of reality that is a simulation of actual reality, with varying degrees of success. We are all living in the matrix so to speak, it’s just a matter of degree. I didn’t really fully understand this until recently, but some people simply do not want to be unplugged. They want further immersion into delusion instead of a window into the uncomfortable truths. But peeling back the layers and really looking into the void might be what they need instead. I think the better path is truth, but this is for me. I am now wired to seek truth no matter the emotional cost.
So how do we do this? It’s simple, but not easy. All we need to do is accept this truth, and not in the I know I’m going to die someday because my pet goldfish died when I was seven kind of way, but true acceptance. This includes accepting all of our fear around death; the fear of living a life without meaning or purpose and fear of pain and loss. Accept everything. Accept that nothing is permanent. Come back to being present, and let go of judgment about your feelings and emotions. You will drift. This is entropy. The mind always returns to what it does best – which is worry.
I use meditation to remind myself to stay present, to remind myself that fear is a natural event and the default state of humans. I use meditation as a weapon against this existential angst. It’s not the only tool, but it is quite effective.
At the end of life many have regrets, and they usually revolve around the non-material: living a life not true to us, prioritizing things over relationships and not allowing ourselves to be truly happy. For most of us these things are not just random chance beyond our control; they are skills that we develop by constant practice. Many people never face their feelings about death and as a result never truly understand what they want out of life. They wait until the end when the universe forces them to consider the implications. Don’t be one of these people. Unplug and accept, and you will be free. Accepting death allows you to fully embrace what it is to live.