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The Unbearable Truth


It seems that we are members of the only animal species that lives most of its life knowing that it’s going to die. I sometimes wonder if life would be easier if we didn’t know it. It really is the worst of all spoilers. Happy Monday, by the way.

Now, there are other animals that do seem to realize when death is approaching; venerable elephants famously leave their pack to die in seclusion, and dogs and cats often run away from home or hide when their end is near.

But I suspect they don’t quite know why they’re inclined to do these things. It seems unlikely that they do it out of a rational understanding of their life cycle; I suspect that the urge just mysteriously comes over them along with the illness and weakness, and they take heed.

In any case, they don’t seem to know what’s coming until it’s on their doorstep.

Human beings, for better or worse, inevitably gather a more complete understanding of death, and very early on. We learn the concept of death as children. A person can’t live for more than four or five years without discovering the unpleasant fact that they are ultimately, well, doomed. Every child soon encounters a situation that someone else must help them understand by breaking this sad news, whether it’s when a pet disappears, when they ask where their grandma’s grandma is, or when they watch the Mr Hooper episode of Sesame Street.

It’s quite an unsettling revelation, and one of the few that is truly beyond doubt. As we live our lives, it’s hard to completely forget about it, so people all over the world have come to handle this troublesome knowledge some way or another.

How Do People Deal With It?

Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re privy to this disturbing information that makes humanity so troubled.

Animals don’t have funerals for each other, as far as I know. Curiously, nor do they fret about wasting their afternoon or not living up to their potential.

There are thousands of theories, mythologies, and beliefs about what happens to a person who dies, but to be frank nobody really knows. All we know is that whatever form the deceased take is not the same one they have when they’re alive. They disappear from our material world, that’s all we can really tell, if we’re to suspend any wishful thinking.

Judging by fossil records, human beings have been burying each other ceremonially for about 130,000 years. Tools, clothing, and treasures lie neatly alongside ancient skeletons, as if the mourners were quite convinced they’d be useful there.

Did we, at some point, become smart enough to recognize the possibility (or probability?) of life after death? Or did we just become a little too aware of our impending doom, and develop the fanciful notion that life paradoxically goes on after death, just somewhere else.

It couldn’t just end, right?

It seems to me that most people find that thought unacceptable. I don’t think it’s too cynical to surmise that many traditional teachings about life after death are probably products of our death anxiety, rather than a result of careful reasoning or personal experience.

I am not arguing that there is no life after death, not at all. I don’t think debating the topic makes much sense. We just don’t have any first hand information about it, just speculation, hope and traditional beliefs. People tend to be very strongly attached to their beliefs on this issue, which only seems to testify to the level of anxiety and uncertainty death arouses in all of us.

My only argument is that as a species we are profoundly uncomfortable with the prospect of death, and we invest great amounts energy trying to conquer it, escape it or deny that it even really happens.

Anti-aging products are a 200 billion-dollar industry, and this number is expected to skyrocket as baby boomers push on into their sixties and seventies. Psychics charge hundreds of dollars to let you interact with ‘dead’ relatives. Most religious traditions include the promise of life after death, at least for the faithful. Rumor has it that it’s somehow better than this life, the problemless paradise we’ve always hoped for. Suicide bombers gratefully obliterate their bodies (and others) apparently convinced that they will be rewarded with admittance to heaven.

The recurring theme is that if we can just live in a certain way, if we can just sacrifice enough money, time or worldly things, we can circumvent the inevitability and finality of death. Or at least have a chance.

Psychologist Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize-Winning book in 1973 called Denial of Death, in which he argues that human civilization is essentially an elaborate mechanism to defend ourselves from the unbearable knowledge that we are going to die.

He theorizes that each of us has an overwhelming urge to create or become part of something that we suppose to be eternal, a motive which he refers to as our “hero project.” People in all walks of life create great monuments and works of art, raise children to succeed in ways they never could, seek to become famous, devote themselves to religions that promise eternal life, or in some other way build something that will outlast their physical selves. The profession of writing has long been associated with attempts to become, at least in part, immortal.

In all cases, these pursuits consume one’s time and energy in greater quantities than anything else they do. Whether the aim is becoming a great writer, raising brilliant children, taking over nations, or amassing great wealth, they inevitably become one’s purpose in life.

Monuments of Death

I just finished watching an incredible BBC documentary called Around the World in 80 Treasures. Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank embarks on a five-month round-the world journey in which he visits 80 astounding human creations: temples, monuments, buildings and works of art.

Almost all of these extraordinary creations venerate one of a small group of familiar human themes: fertility, weather and climate, God, the heavens, and fortune.

Near the end of the documentary, while reflecting on a bridge over a Venetian canal, Cruickshank confides that he couldn’t help but be affected by the fact that an overwhelming number of these great treasures had to do with death. Evidently, it has been very much on the minds of people from every culture throughout history. Sacrificial sites, tombs and mausoleums comprise some of the grandest, most visually and spiritually imposing constructions on earth.

The surface of the planet is adorned with epic “hero projects,” and the amount of effort and money involved in creating them is often staggering. Here are two memorable examples:

The Great Pyramid


The Pharaoh Khufu is said to have conscripted over 100,000 people for 20 years to build his tomb. Today it’s one of the world’s most iconic images. It has been 4,575 years since his death, and here I am talking about him. But I couldn’t tell you anything else about the guy, except that he had nine sons and fifteen daughters.

The Terracotta Warriors


The first emperor of the Chinese Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, was buried with an army of over 8,000 life-sized warriors, horses and chariots, all molded in terracotta. According to the ancient historian Sima Qian, only a small part of his tomb has been uncovered; he is said to also be buried with “palaces, scenic towers, officials, valuable utensils and ‘wonderful objects,'” whose creation involved 700,000 workers. He was thirteen years old when construction began.

Life Can’t Be Owned

There is a brilliant line in a Dresden Dolls song:

By counting your blessings you wind up in debt
It starts with your family and ends in your bed

Life is a gift that comes to us out of nowhere, but I think we sometimes have trouble admitting to ourselves that is only borrowed. As attached as we become to it, we have to give it back eventually.

Don’t get me wrong, I am humbled by the ingenuity and grandeur of the above monuments, but it appears to me that these individuals were trying to exert enormous amounts of worldly power in a vain attempt to defeat death. I suppose they reasoned that their privileged position in life should somehow exempt them from paying back the only loan that can’t be defaulted on.

I don’t know what happens after death, but I would guess that for all his wealth and ambition, Khufu didn’t end up any closer to God than did the slaves who toiled to death building his tomb.

Can we truly come to terms with the idea of absolute mortality, without adding any caveats, fantasies, or what-ifs? I’ve thought about it all night, and to speak only for myself, the answer so far is no. I can’t, not really anyway. I see now that I am indeed working on a hero project of sorts. Thanks for reading it.


Photo by madico83 and lyng883

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Stefan August 17, 2009 at 1:45 am

Great post. The Pyramids and The Terracotta Warriors are truly amazing pieces of work and even though they are several thousands year old they still amaze people. Death have always and will most certainly always be a interesting subject since every one of us have different opinions about it. What will happen after our deaths, what we want to happen with our body, etc.

The big question is, will human kind succeed to survive death? I recently watched an episode of Dollhouse where one woman made a copy of all the information she knew. When she died they simply made put her information inside another woman’s body. Maybe something to think about, even though it was only a TV-show.
.-= Stefan´s last blog ..How to Get Free Content From Experts =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 8:06 am

Cloning and other fantastic technologies will definitely complicate things. If people are willing to build great monuments to become immortal, imagine how many people will want to clone or ‘download’ themselves. Things will get interesting over the next 50 years.

Char (PSI TutorLMenotor) August 17, 2009 at 5:15 am

i wouldn’t want to live forever~ like a for vampire, life would become boring through its predictability. i wouldn’t appreciate the now. remember, the gods are jealous of our mortality. it is because of death that we have the ability to fully immerse ourselves in a multitudes of now and unity.

this is my human experience, and i embrace it.

according to physics one cannot cease to be, energy changes. hindi and other scripts repeat this in the perennial philosophy
of awareness-of-one’s-nature.

David August 17, 2009 at 8:07 am

It’s an interesting thought: we know that our energy and matter must be redispersed, but when that happens, what happens to ‘us’? Does consciousness go with it? Dissolve? What is consciousness anyway? It really opens a huge box of questions.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) September 7, 2009 at 3:34 pm

methinks consciousness is something that comes with this suit. so, as it is part of the human experience i expect to say by to it on the other side. doubt i’ll miss it though; just to be sure i am enjoying and appreciating it to the full now.

David September 7, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Sounds like the best policy :)
.-= David´s last blog ..How to Make a Life List You’ll Actually Do: A Comprehensive Guide =-.

Jay Schryer August 17, 2009 at 6:53 am

Back in my glory days, I played guitar in a band. We openly stated that we were involved in a “hero project”, although that’s not the term we used. We just wanted to write at least one song that would live forever. Being a one-hit wonder is better than being a no-hit wonder. Now, I’ve involved myself in several of them through my writing. I’d still like to have a hit song, but I’d also be happy writing a novel or anything else that would stand forever.

I think this post ties in nicely with your last one. People don’t always realize the effect that their thousands of actions are making every day, and so they (mistakenly) believe that they haven’t made an effect on the world at all. I think this is the source of our anxiety about death, and therefore the birth of all hero projects. We want to believe that we mattered, that our existence was useful. We think that hero projects, if successfully completed, will give us proof that our lives had meaning.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..The Big Easy =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 8:12 am

I was thinking about this last night, and it surprised me how difficult it seems to be to not work on a hero project. It seems almost everything I do is some effort to either preserve my physical body (eating, earning a living, sleeping) or preserve my legacy (writing, working on goals, etc.) When I spend to much time goofing off I feel like I’m neglecting something tremendously important. Maybe the hero project is all it is.

Lisis August 17, 2009 at 7:17 am

Hmmm…. maybe. Maybe it’s about immortality and delusions of grandeur. Or maybe these “hero projects” are precisely what we are put on this earth to do… some projects being greater in magnitude than others.

I used to revel in all the stuff that I had learned about so many subjects, feeling satisfied with myself for finding my own little formula for inner peace and happiness. But then one day this Tae Kwon Do teacher scolded me because I wasn’t doing anything WITH that knowledge (he wanted me to teach yoga, or something). He said any knowledge I didn’t share would simply die with me… and what’s the point in that?

So maybe it’s not always about being a hero or cheating death, but rather about sharing what we have learned with others, or with future generations. What Khufu and Qin left for us wasn’t so much a monument to their greatness (even if that was their intent) but a treasure trove of historical information that teaches us what life was like in those days.

And the sharing doesn’t have to be monumental, either. Think of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole whose main contribution to posterity was his Hawaiian version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, before he died at age 38. But who among us can listen to that song and not be overwhelmed with a sense of well-being?

Sorry for the rambling… it’s been a while since I got to visit here, so I guess all my comments got bottled up inside! ;)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Inspiration from Brenda Short: Thank You =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 8:19 am

Good to hear from you Lisis.

You’re right, so many of these hero projects really improve the lives of the survivors. I wonder if it might be an impulse to improve humankind that compels us to create these things. I suspect they are part of the same motive. After all, what better way to be a hero than to make the world a better place?

Craig | BloomVerse August 17, 2009 at 8:48 am

The fear of death is a source of extreme constriction in life. And as you point out quite well here, it influences what many do while living. Some act on “hero projects” out of a sense that life and egoism are one in the same. Others simply engage in life because of its frivolity. But what’s the difference between the two? Only the perspective of the person who is doing. Does he/she view life as arising from and being centered in ego? Or does he/she view life as a haphazard, unending phenomenon in which the ego sense is merely a blip?

That views of this will always be vast and diverse is one of the great treasures of existence.
.-= Craig | BloomVerse´s last blog ..4 ways to quickly and easily get unstuck =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 7:09 pm

That views of this will always be vast and diverse is one of the great treasures of existence.

Absolutely Craig. The diversity of views is what accounts for the wondrous variety in monuments, literature and spiritual traditions all over the world. I love that it all stems from a common concern.

John August 17, 2009 at 9:08 am

Interesting take on death. It’s true that ever since I was a kid that I’ve thought about death. Now that I know it’s coming for all of us, I periodically wonder what it’s like. Is it painful or pleasurable? Does everything fade to blackness (like an ending) or whiteness (denoting a beginning). Like the rest of you guys, I’m just trying to use my life to build something great while I’m still here.
.-= John´s last blog ..Do You Recognize the Problem With Instant Gratification? =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 7:11 pm

It’s very interesting that we don’t even know what it really is, yet it’s so widely feared. I suppose the real fear is not of death, but the loss of our life. There is definitely a distinction there.

prayerthegate August 17, 2009 at 10:37 am

A deep and weighty subject today. Nice job. Since death is certain, the only thing we have control over is today. And I agree we are to share our gifts and talents.
As a deeply spiritual person, it saddens me when people believe the afterlife is more glorious or important than this one. Since matter is energy and is neither created nor destroyed I am sure there is an afterlife. But the life we live in is now.
I also think the kingdom of heaven is revealed when we take some dinner over to an aquantance who is out of work, or help an elderly person with something that is difficult for them to do. It is also when we are together with friends and our lives connect. Great post. Thanks,
.-= prayerthegate´s last blog ..Swim With a Buddy =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 7:15 pm

I completely agree with you. I think somewhere along the way, the Kingdom of Heaven was misrepresented as a place you go after you die. As far as I’m concerned it was always meant to be recognized as a divine state that is fully accessible to the living.

Kaushik August 17, 2009 at 6:02 pm

A wonderfully balanced way to look at death. When it comes down to it, I like what Anthony de Mello said,and I’m paraphrasing: let’s not worry so much about life after death; let’s worry more about life before death.

Great article, thanks!
.-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Call off the Struggle =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 7:18 pm

That’s a brilliant quote. Thank you Kaushik.

jeff August 18, 2009 at 7:50 am

To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
(Walt Whitman)

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

(Mary Oliver)

To be full of curiosity and amazement, to remember and remember and remember what it is to be alive … To really look and … I don’t have to ‘make’ anything of my life, as it is making itself at every moment.

My individual form will unweave itself some day, unravelling like an old sweater and death will. I am not the sweater but the thread and the thread remains unbroken, to be woven into new forms, new garments, of flesh or some finer stuff, who knows?

Whatever we imagine of death and what may come after it will by its very nature, be different. But I am completely convinced that there is nothing to fear.

As regards animals I remember when my little cat’s kidneys were failing and she was nearing death, though she was very weak, hardly able to move, she would make her way outside and find a spot where the soil was bare, not on the grass, lying there very still and quiet, all alone. A couple of times I brought her back inside thinking she would be more comfortable but she made her way outside. She did not want attention, to be petted or held by me or anyone, neither eating nor drinking, she had turned away from life. Just her and the bare earth, so calm and dignified. The vet said she would have to be euthanized as otherwise, as her kidneys shut down completely, she would come to have seizures and be in pain. But maybe I could have left here there. She knew what was best. She may not have known in the human sense THAT she was about to die but she knew HOW to die. That little cat was wise beyond my present wisdom.
.-= jeff´s last blog ..In My Heart =-.

David August 19, 2009 at 6:43 am

My cat did the same thing. In fact she was doing it before we knew anything was wrong. We couldn’t find her one day, and finally discovered her sitting in the very corner of the walk-in closed upstairs, concealed amongst the clothes. Very out-of-character for her.

She had lost weight rapidly, so we took her to the vet and heard the bad news.

Daniel Edlen August 19, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I just wrote a post about cycles versus growth. I think humanity, especially capitalistic societies, is way too caught up in the idea of progress, of goals, of doing better and better. Leaving the world better off for our offspring. Saving animals out of the goodness of our hearts that would’ve died naturally, thus messing with evolution. Ego.

That’s what leads man to the idea of a legacy. I’m one. One reason I set out to market and sell my Vinyl Art is to create a collection out there of my portraits that could one day be reassembled into a retrospective exhibit at the Guggenheim. Yep. The Guggenheim.

Pff. Live your Life. That’s why were given it. But, we’re also given that ability to accumulate moments in memory and project into the future. And we’re given creativity. So the paradox. If Life is about cycles with no judgement, no accumulation of points, then what is the creativity for? What’s it supposed to leave behind?

I paint portraits on the artifacts of music. The music isn’t left once you’ve heard it, other than in your memory. Ponder that one too. Music vs. visual art. My mashup of the two. Hmm.

.-= Daniel Edlen´s last blog ..Vinyl Art Goes To London! =-.

David August 20, 2009 at 6:50 am

Right on Daniel, I agree. I’ve been embracing the paradox too. We do seem to be built for creativity, so it would be a shame to suppress that bent. Maybe it’s just something we should do for its own sake, even if the left part of our brains think its so we can live forever.

Danny Boy August 24, 2009 at 10:51 pm

this was such a good read. You made me feel a lot better about my life. thanks.
.-= Danny Boy´s last blog .. =-.

David August 25, 2009 at 6:36 am

Glad you liked it Danny Boy. To immortality *raises glass*

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