It’s funny. Sometimes I think I spend most of my time on this blog trying to drum up ways to legitimize inappropriate topics for it rather than actually writing. Fear of rejection? World of Warcraft? The nature of human community? Why not? I can manufacture a paleo reason to talk about anything.
Today’s topic, I do think, however, has serious paleo resonances. I do a lot of talking about the paleo diet, and I even talk about the paleo lifestyle, which includes things like play and ample sleep on this blog. And we like to talk about differences between how we live today and how, presumably, many of our ancestors did. How did they think, live, eat, sleep? Beyond that, even, we get to ask: how did they relate? Love? Act? Is that important for us now?
Sometimes I think what’s most important is not figuring out what ancestors did, but rather different things that we do in different cultures today, and comparing them. This enlightens us to how incredibly conditioned we have all been. For example, we know well that beauty norms come largely from culture. Whether we like big noses or small noses or men in high heels versus women in high heels is all a matter of perspective. We can dig deeper than that, however. What about our basic fears, our basic hopes, our basic loves? Here’s one example I’ll delve into at another point in time: consider the notion that we do not have capitalism because humans are inherently selfish, but rather that we are selfish because we have capitalism, the idea being that we have to become defensive and self-aggrandizing in order to be safe and hold our own. Culture over time can make us fearful and think of ourselves as more selfish than we are, and it sits so deeply in our psyches that it’s nearly impossible to find.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to today’s topic: why are we such a mess about death in American society?
I began having panic attacks about dying when I was five years old. I laid in bed at night, shaking with a racing heart, terrified of the abyss. I imagined winking out of existence and sobbed in abject horror. This was largely, I believe, because I was not raised in a religious or openly spiritual household that talked about that kind of thing. This notion, however, presumes that there is something terrifying at all that needs to be reconciled with a spiritual viewpoint. Why was I terrified of dying before I even read my first novel?
By the time I was in first grade, I had been exposed to two things. I was exposed to media in which death is portrayed as the one thing to fear and avoid at all costs, and I was exposed to our culture response to it. In TV and in movies especially we portray death as the ultimate horrible end. People and story plots go to the most incredible length’s to preserve lives — this simplistic and dramatic trope is, in fact, the dominant plot thread in most of Western story-telling. This indicates a more broad abhorrence of and distance from death in our culture as a whole, but in the media, and as a child, I was bombarded with it and all its terrifying might without context. Worse is the aftermath. We dress in black. We weep. We sob. We storm. We conduct solemn funeral processions that last days. 100 years ago, I might wear a black dress for a whole year if my betrothed happened to past.
I was exposed to a barrage of negative images around death as a child. And I am of course similarly exposed today: the act. The event. The response. All of it terrified me for most of my life. What is this horrible thing, this non-existing thing, this thing that everyone talks about in hushed voices only and that is far away from me, far away from my life, and this horrible, gaping, looming threat? Because the worst part of it all, to me, is that we continue to portray and treat death as the most abhorrent curse without ever sharing our experiences or thoughts or doubts around it.
The roots of the Western fear of death run deep, deep, deep, deep. Fortunately for me (!?), one of my specialties in my work as an (aspiring) philosopher is existential despair and dread and nihilism in general. So I have learned a fair bit about it and have come to grips with so much of it that I feel quite at peace with all of it now. There’s too much to go into in any great detail here, though our estrangement from nature, our (waning?) investment in supernatural deities, and our Christian/Judaic/Islamic heritage play no small role.
This, however, is not how it has to be done.
Consider the funerary practices of the Maori culture in New Zealand:
At one point while living in Taiwan I became close friends with a Maori woman. She expressed to me that she was puzzled over our fear of death. She thought (and I do now, too), that a great deal of it has to do with our cultural practices. For the Maori, when a family member is nearing death, everyone related is called to their home, and they throw a day, or two-day, or week, or however-long-they-choose party for the ailing member. They have festivities and the children gallivant and play out in the fields and everyone does what they can to be present with their precious loved one in the time remaining, full of laughter and lightness. And then they bid her farewell, surrounding her on her deathbed as she dies. If she does not pass, everyone goes home and comes back to Ethel’s Goodbye Partay 2.0 the next time she looks like she might be ready.
Being closer to death, this Maori woman I knew thought that it was less of a big deal, for one. She was familiar with it. She wasn’t raised to fear it, to cloth herself in black, to be private about her feelings, and to stand in awestruck terror in front of corpses. She was, instead, encouraged to be close to death, to be present with it, and to be familiar with its processes. Psychologists know well that a large portion of our fear comes from the unknown and from things about which we perceive we have no control.
Looking at this Maori culture demonstrates that we don’t have to be as afraid of dying as we have been conditioned to be. Many other cultures around the world shed similar light on the topic. Hell, Buddhists don’t think there’s a “self” that exists to die anyway, so what’s the big fuss about? Of course holding that belief and practicing is easier said than done, but that is the goal of much of the tradition. Non-attachment is the name of the game.
One more example is something – one of my favorite belief systems – called the Religion of Nature. One of its primary tenants is that we are inherently natural beings, part of a great cycle of good and evil and death and rebirth. It’s all inevitable. It’s all a part of the process. What have we to so intensely fear? Death is as much a part of life as anything else. In fact, one thing you may want to consider is a biological fact popularized (somewhat) and interpreted by famed biologist Ursula Goodenough:
Life used to exist solely in unicellular form. This form was, more or less, immortal. It did not have to die as it regenerated itself and reproduced. But in order to utilize more cells and grow into larger organisms, life needed to burn more energy. More energy meant more oxygen. More oxygen meant burning more strongly, more brightly. It meant that life became a flame that had, necessarily, to be extinguished. Death, it turns out, is the biological price of life. Without it, no advanced lifeforms would exist. With out death, so the evolutionary story goes, none of us would be alive.
All of which is to say that there are tons of things in our culture that make death more terrifying than it needs to be. The process of death as we portray it, and the way in which we mourn it, and the incredible, terrifying distance we give it from our everyday lives (not to mention our increased ability to avoid it with medicine…leading to an even greater attachment to immortality) is a bit absurd, and it’s everywhere. It demonstrates an underlying terror in our psyche, but we cannot chip away at that terror unless we start recognizing all of it’s sources.
And the reason I bring this all up, and on a paleo blog, to boot, is three-fold.
1) Anxiety is a huge problem for the modern world. A large portion of our anxieties, I think, lie in our unresolved feelings regarding both the deaths of those around us as well as our own looming mortality.
2) Looking at the variety of cultures around the world and at the variety of ideas out there like the religion of nature demonstrates just how culturally conditioned we are in our basic fears and hopes and loves and dreams. We do not have to be any particular way. We do not have to feel a certain way. There are biological imperatives, sure. Of course we do not want to die. Of course we want to be loved. But we have choice and agency and the ability to feel any number of different things. The only thing to do with that choice is to act on it.
3) If paleo is about natural stuff, and if my writing on this blog is about being natural women, then we might have the leeway here to consider what true naturalness means.
If you are attached to immortality, if you believe in God or gods or any number of things, or you don’t, whatever, that is awesome. I give giant thumbs up to all metaphysical views.
But we should, individually and together as a community of beings, to be able to, no matter what our belief systems, consider ourselves a part of the natural world, and love ourselves for all of that. When we wrap ourselves up in fear of death, and when we distance ourselves from it and erect barriers in our lives to avoid confronting it, we distance ourselves from perhaps the most essential part of being human. And of course we cannot ever learn how to love that part of ourselves.
We cannot–or at least I now refuse to–hate or fear or resent our bodies for degenerating. We cannot live in terror. We cannot fight constantly against a natural process and expect that we will maintain positive mental health. I refuse to be upset that I live so precariously on the edge of life. I am what I am–no more, and no less. I am a body. I am a woman. I am a speck of universe-dust come alive. More importantly, perhaps is the fact that death runs on its own clock. And as it does, I can only breathe. I can only peacefully accept my place in the overturning processes of the cosmos. I accept and embrace my fragility as it is, and do my best to live a life that floats among the chaos.
The universe is rife with uncertainty, though we can still be certain of our power and serenity as natural beings in a natural world. None of us can beat death. But we can dance against and around it, and live courageously into a future that is unknown.