The anxiety of death undergirds and animates nearly everything we do, but this is not a conclusion one comes to through a superficial and abstract view of death, but only after one is careful to give it the inward inspection it is due.
I’m always amazed, and a bit frustrated, when I ask people about their feelings towards their own death and they casually respond with something like, “I’m not afraid of death, I know where I’m going when I die,” and then 10 minutes later they’re losing their mind because they lost their car keys or are worried about being late on their next rent payment; as if losing one’s keys or getting behind on rent is more terrifying than death.
This casual attitude towards one’s own impending death reveals the sort of flippancy that can only come from years of repressing the idea of one’s own finiteness through innumerable distractions with life’s trivialities. Under this spell of thoughtlessness it is easy to conjure up knee-jerk judgments on someone like Brittany Maynard and peg her with the crime of “suicide” without further ado.
I think Brittany Maynard helped to open a window of awareness of death that few people were ready for when the story broke. Something about a young woman, newly married and full of vitality, choosing to end her life due to brain cancer hit many people hard. Accusation of suicide and new angst against euthanasia ran rampant online to a fever pitch, almost overnight.
Last night Brittany Maynard ended her life through doctor assisted death just as she said she would. No doubt the debate will continue, nasty things will be said from each side, judgments will fly in all directions, and at the end of it, if we’re not careful, we will have missed the primary lesson for which Brittany became an unwitting conduit: that we too will die and that our reaction to Brittany’s decision reflects the ‘coming out of hiding’ of our own anxiety and fears of death.
Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg said that “most people think death fear is absent because it rarely shows its true face,” however, he argues that “behind the sense of insecurity in the face of danger, behind the sense of discouragement and depression, there always lurks the basic fear of death, a fear which undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways.”
Ernest Becker wrote, in my estimation, the most lucid book on the subject in recent times entitled “The Denial of Death.” His main thesis is that people strive to overcome the anxiety of death through a feeling of heroism which allows them to psychologically transcend their reality of creatureliness. He claims that “the prison of one’s character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one’s creatureliness,” i.e., the fact that one is both self-conscious and finite. He taught that the chief self-analytic problem of life is to become conscious of “what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism.”
Perhaps many people have achieve their slice of heroism, and the added bonus of deferring the struggle with their own creatureliness, by simply dismissing Brittany as a statistic—just another suicide case. Or perhaps, on the other end, people are happily jumping on board with Brittany and supporting her based on their own unconscious fear of death—giving her the affirmation for staying in control of her fate, a control which they themselves fear to relinquish at death.
Whatever the case may be, we would all do well to to sit quietly before the reality of our own eventual death and become more acquainted with it, not for the sake of morbidity but learn about our true selves.
There’s little more I can say to the issue except maybe give my own thoughts directly to Brittany post-mortem:
Brittany, no doubt yours was a decision made at the pinnacle of sorrow, made not just for yourself but for your family and friends. I thank you for helping me and our death-repressed culture to become a little more conscious of our own fate. I’m sorry yours was as it was, and I too shake in terror of my own mortality. But may we all come to know and thank God who took away the sting of death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
May the Lord grant you a place of brightness, a place of verdue, a place of repose where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away.