(The) Year of Magical Thinking: #A-Z Challenge
‘We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Here we go. Another risky post. But like its kissing cousin, religion and spirituality, we need to talk about death. Facing our own mortality is a defining characteristic of midlife and it is what sends many of us on a quest for life’s deeper meaning and a stronger sense of purpose.
Most of us have mourned family members and friends who have died. We have done the math and realized that the term ‘midlife’ may be a bit optimistic; that there’s less time ahead of than behind us. If both of our parents have died, we have realized that we are now members of the “oldest living generation,” a startling and discomfiting thought.
It’s Normal to Reject Facing Our Own Mortality
Some psychologists and philosophers posit that facing our own mortality leads to fear and anxiety that we attempt to relieve through all of the usual self-soothing, numbing forms of behaviour. For example, researchers found that after 9-11, there were significant increases in drinking, gambling, smoking, and comfort food eating.
Referred to as the terror management theory, the idea is that when we fear death, we close the circle, rejecting people who aren’t like us, and stockpiling material possessions in an attempt to feel both secure and significant.
Responses to talk of death range from plugging our ears and chanting “I can’t hear you!” to fantasizing along with William Saroyan,
“Everyone has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case”
or laughing along with Woody Allen:
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
But There Are Positives to Facing Our Own Mortality
Leaving a Legacy
Knowing that we won’t be here forever does a wonderful job of concentrating the mind. For many of us, that means rethinking our purpose and consciously deciding what legacy we’d like to leave behind. There’s some evidence that this desire for legacy is correlated with efforts to be healthy and to seek spiritual growth. I’m actually a big proponent of this positive, but can’t resist quoting Woody Allen on this topic too:
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.“
Loving Our Life
Life is made more precious by the knowledge that it ends. People who have had a diagnosis of cancer, suffered a heart attack, or come close to death know this well, but it’s a reality we can all embrace. The awareness of time passing can help us to stop taking the beauty in our world for granted; to let go of old and unimportant concerns, and to feel and express gratitude for everything we love and all we have been given.
Try Not to Fear
When doing research for this post, I came across the transcript of a TEDx talk by Stephen Cave. His closing words are comforting to me. Hopefully they help you too.
“Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, and your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
How are you with the idea of facing your own mortality?