Is Thinking About Our Own Death Healthy or Morbid?
Like many, I suspect, I am dismayed by the swift passing of my years on this earth, especially now that the noon of life is well behind me. Perhaps because of this, oftener than in the past I find myself mulling over the fact that in a not too distant future a bell will toll just for me.
How should I relate to the disturbing thoughts and feelings raised by the awareness of my mortality? Should I ignore them? Should I try and actively repress them? Should I let myself be carried by them, and see where they lead me?
I do not expect you to be interested in my own way of dealing with this question. But it seems to be the case that, regardless of age, most of us at one time or another face similar thoughts. Thus, it is worthwhile inquiring about the role of death-related concerns in our mental and emotional life as portrayed by some leading psychologists: for in our time, people have turned increasingly to these practitioners for counsel on major issues in their lives.
Western Culture and Death
In assessing their views, one should keep in mind that psychologists are very late comers to these age old questions. Not only that: their young discipline has been with some justification reproached for having largely ignored the role of mortality in people’s lives for the best part of its short history (see also Quester, 2016).
It is equally important to recall that Western culture is imbued with the awareness that a confrontation with mortality can engender meaningful change in the human psyche.
In classical antiquity, echoes of this insight reverberated in the mythical heroes' journeys to the Underworld; in Plato's tenet that the quest for wisdom is but a preparation for death - as are indeed most world religions -, and in the stoic philosophers' meditations on mortality.
The medieval monk's pious labors were waited out by a skull upon his desk, lest he forget life's transience; and Francis of Assisi befriended "Sister Death".
The Renaissance period was pervaded by the view that to be truly human is to be death focused.
In the modern era, key thinkers, from Montaigne and Pascal to Kierkegaard and Heidegger, have regarded the acknowledgement of our mortality as essential for authentic living.
Some Leading psychologists' Views on Death
In light of such an extended intellectual and experiential confrontation with mortality, one should not expect too much in the way of either profundity or radical novelty from the insights of modern psychologists. Yet, they speak to us in a tongue we find easier to understand. And their views originate from a commerce with human minds and personalities which differs significantly from earlier approaches'. Because of this, they deliver at times fresh insights to this age long debate.
A great deal of information can be garnered from the ongoing empirical research on this topic. Here, I chose instead to briefly outline the views of some leading psychologists concerning the attitude towards death that we should adopt to preserve our psychological well being.*
Eric Fromm (1900-1980)
Popular wisdom often regarded death as a great equalizer. To Erich Fromm, a very influential humanistic psychologist, death broaches instead a fundamental diversification among human beings: the one between those who love life and those who love death: between the necrophilous and the biophilous character orientations. They are polar opposites, and the former one ‘is the most morbid and the most dangerous among the orientations to life of which man is capable. It is the true perversion: while being alive,not life but death is loved; not growth but destruction’ (Fromm, 1964, p.48).
The necrophilous orientation colors every facet of a person’s character. Such a person is past oriented, cold, remote, a devotee of law and order, controlling, orderly, obsessive and pedantic, appreciative of things mechanical, and enamored of dark, hidden, and deep places. A necrophilous person can even be identified by his or her physical appearance: cold eyes, a dull skin, and the expression of someone offended by a bad odor.
In terms of this account, any attitude toward death that is not one of utter rejection is psychologically harmful. Nothing is to be gained from contemplating our mortality, from dwelling upon the "worm at the core" of our being. Conversely, the biophilous orientation, which also expresses itself in every aspect of a person's life, stems from an exuberant, passionate, unquestioning affirmation and love of life.
Rollo May (1909-1994)
Fromm's view, with its unredeemable opposition between life and death and its call for a complete eradication of death-related concerns in one's life, is unique in its radicalism among the authors considered here, and was subjected to trenchant criticism by Rollo May, a major figure within the field of existential psychology. Given the philosophical underpinnings of this approach, it is not surprising that May (1967) should find Fromm's views especially disquieting. Fromm's imperative to separate oneself from the dead world - his vilification of death- translates for May into an invitation to evade a constitutive dimension of human nature.
For May, it is the very willingness to face death that gives rise to our creative powers: Confronting death is necessary for creativity; indeed, artists have proclaimed to us all down through the ages that creativity and death are very closely related . . . ; the creative act itself, from human birth on, is the capacity to die in order that something new may be born. (1967, p. 56).
More fundamentally, May charged that Fromm failed to understand that true devotion to life requires a confrontation with death. Loving life for its own sake, which Fromm celebrated as the greatest good and as the core of our humanity, in actuality leads to a dehumanization of the person. That a person will go to every length to protect and preserve his or her life is to May nothing but ‘man at his most craven’. This unreflective love of life, this need to ‘hang on at all costs’ has a withering effect upon a person's existence and ultimately leads to a kind of death-in-life. Ironically enough, then, Fromm’s rejection of death, far from celebrating life, is life denying. It is responsible for lack of zest, apathy, and even sadism and violence.
We have come full circle here, because these are some of the very characteristics of the necrophilous orientation denounced by Fromm. It is also worth mentioning that, for May, the awareness of death comes to the fore in the second half of life, when one realizes with the fullness of one's being that one's life draws upon a finite, steadily diminishing reservoir of time.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004)
Most of the authors surveyed here side with May regarding the psychologically appropriate attitude toward death. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the world renowned pioneer of near-death studies, concurred that, far from constituting a healthy, life-affirming attitude, the refusal to befriend death is partially responsible for the empty, purposeless, conformist lives that so many people resign themselves to. Only by ‘accepting the finiteness of our individual existences can we find the strength and courage to reject extrinsic roles and expectations and to devote each day of our lives - however long they may be - to growing as fully as we are able’ (Kubler-Ross, 1975, p.164). She also echoed May's (1962) tenet that death awareness brings in its wake a different relationship with time. For when a person lives as though he or she were to live forever, postponing the demands of life becomes easier. Memories of the past and plans for the future squeeze out the present and the opportunities for authentic living it offers. Only by realizing that each day could be the last one can a person take the time to grow, to become oneself, to reach out to others.
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997)
The founder of logotherapy, a variant of existential analysis, similarly believed that nothing is to be gained by trying to expunge death from life. Death does not rob life of its meaning, and it does not make a mockery of human efforts. On the contrary, the very finiteness of human existence is a precondition for its meaning: ‘For what would our lives be like if they were not finite in time, but infinite? If we were immortal, we could legitimately postpone every action forever. It would be of no consequence whether or not we did a thing now. . . . But in the face of death as absolute finis to our future and boundary to our possibilities, we are under the imperative of utilizing our lifetimes to the utmost - not letting the singular opportunities whose finite sum constitutes the whole of life-pass by unused’. (Frankl, 1986, pp. 63-64).
Erik Erikson (1902-1994)
A compatible view is advanced by this celebrated developmental psychologist. In Erikson's view, each stage of human development is marked by a conflict between antithetical tendencies that, if successfully dealt with, will bring about a positive developmental outcome. A person's later years are characterized by the conflict between integrity and despair. If successfully managed, it will lead to the development of wisdom, which he defines as ‘an informed and detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself.’ (Erikson, 1982, p.61). However, everyone will not be able to achieve integrity: Only in him who in some way has taken care of things and people and has adapted himself to the triumphs and disappointments adherent to being the originator of others or the generator of products and ideas - only in him may gradually ripen the fruit of these seven stages. I know no better word for it than ego integrity. (Erikson, 1963, p.268)
Integrity also demands the rejection of individualism and a profound integration with one's society. Integrity represents the culminating phase of a lifelong developmental process. As such, the wise attitude toward life and death that integrity enables, and the opportunity it affords to avoid despair and fear otherwise associated with death, requires a lifetime of successful negotiations of key developmental transitions.
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
Another keen psychological analyst of the human condition, though himself a philosopher, took a somberer view of death’s impact on our life plans: ‘In the picture we form of the individual as he dies we come to feel two things: . . . the unfinished nature of things, particularly when there is early death . . . and the lack of fulfillment: no life has realized all its possibilities. No human being-can be everything, but can only dwindle down in realization. (p. 673)
A person can seek a measure of completeness by transcending himself ‘through understanding, beholding and also loving everything which he himself can never be’. Ultimately, though, ’the unity and complex whole of an individual life is never anything but an idea.’
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Fromm (1964) finds no support in Freud's views, either. In writings composed shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, the founder of psychoanalysis noted that modern man's civilized attitude toward death, with its seemingly detached and rational acknowledgement of its inevitability, but thinly disguises a death-denying attitude. The latter is revealed in the emphasis given to external causes of death such as diseases or accidents and in the corresponding attempt to organize life in such a way as to reduce their occurrence. But this is not a psychologically vitalizing choice, for ‘Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked. It becomes shallow and empty. . . . The tendency to exclude death from our calculations in life brings in its train many other renunciations and exclusions.' (Freud, 1915/ 197 0, pp. 290-291)
With keen insight, which reaches well into our present, Freud ( 1915/1970) related to this attitude the increasing role assumed by fictional depictions of life: ‘It is an inevitable result of all this that we should seek in the world of fiction, in literature and in the theater compensation for what has been lost in life. There we still find people who know how to die; who, indeed, even manage to kill someone else. There alone too the condition can be fulfilled which makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with death, namely, that behind all the vicissitudes of life we should still be able to preserve a life intact… in the realm of fiction we find the plurality of lives which we need. We die with the hero with whom we have identified ourselves; yet we survive him, and are ready to die again with another hero. (p.291) However, Freud concluded, it is only when the reality of death can be denied no longer, as in wartime, that life recovers its fullness and becomes interesting again.
Notes and References
*This hub draws upon a work I published some years ago on a professional journal.
Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Frankl, V. E. (1986). The doctor and the soul. New York: Vintage.
Freud, S. (1970). Thoughts for the times on war and death. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund, Freud (Yol.14). London: Hogarth Press & Institute of Psychoanalysis. (Original work published 1915).
Fromm, E. (1964). The heart of man. New York: Harper & Row.
Jaspers, K. (1963). General psychopathology. Manchester, UK: University Press.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1975). Death: The final stage of growth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
May, R. (1967). Existential psychology. Toronto, Canada: CBC.
Quester, J. P. (2016) Death: A Wall or a Door? And What Do key Psychologists Have To Say About This?’). https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Death-A-Wall-or-a-Door-And-What-Do-Psychologists-Think-About-This
© 2016 John Paul Quester