Sunday, 29 November 2015

Death is like a dream

The Denial of Death. By Ernest Becker. 1973 The Free Press. 1975. 

This review was written on May 15th 2015

I found this book in my library recently. It had been lent to me some years ago by Lorcan Walshe but I had not returned it to him. As I am now in  my ninety fourth  year I thought it worth  reading as I find myself thinking about the prospect of death more frequently; but Becker’s book seemed  too complex and too impractical to face what is an inevitable and straightforward event. For example some of the comments by critics in the introduction to the book were as follows:-

 --A magnificent psychophilosophical synthesis of power and insight;
 -- A masterful articulation of the limitations of psychoanalysis;
 -- will be acknowledged as a major work;
  - -unfolding of a mind grasping of new possibilities and forming a new synthesis;
  -- One of the great new books of the 20th or other centuries;
  -- astonishing insights into the theories of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Soren Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Erich  Fromm and other giants; etc, etc.

The other five commentators write very much along such lines but I stopped my reading of the text on page 35 of the 315 pages as I reckoned that my own purpose in facing death and in preparing my mind for the event will not be served by any of the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of dying as provided by the author of this masterpiece. Nor in the final analysis was my concern about myself of any significance but rather a wider concern about the fate of family, friends, and humanity in general and the world we live in.  

I suppose it was about 2 years or so ago when I began to think regularly about death and its approach. My thoughts included a melange of uncertainty, curiosity and melancholy but not of fear. As time passed the sense of curiosity began to dominate my feelings rather than that of melancholy.  I have already noted my physical, mental, social and psychological changes which have taken place and which have been the principal features  of aging during the third stage of  life, although it is  difficult to say when this stage started, it was certainly later than the date of official retirement.  These changes I have described in some detail in my 4th edition of My Challenge to Ageing which was brought up to date on Kindle in 2014.

I have been fortunate that I have never suffered any serious illness during my lifetime apart from a few remediable injuries. There has been a slow and barely noticeable loss of physical strength in later years, now accelerating in the last year or two, and there has been a gradual and often erratic deterioration in other functional and physical aspects of my life. They include hearing and vision, dry eyes and dryness of the mouth at night, appetite reduction, sensitivity to cold and alcohol, erratic sleeping patterns, a reduction and ultimately cessation of sex, and a  tendency to cramps, particularly unpleasant in the hands after long standing use of books and now the iPad and Kindle.

Mood and other psychological and social changes are inevitable as one gradually loses touch with wider society and particularly as one’s contemporaries and old friends pass gradually from the scene.  However, despite the social and physical changes of ageing, isolation need not prevent us seeking access to the activities provided by family and others, and taking advantage of such means of communication as radio and television, not to mention the computer, the Ipad and the Kindle. I still maintain my regular walking programme although now reduced to about four times a week and perhaps for a distance of about one to two miles. I am careful to avoid accidents – the stairs, the footpaths, the house lighting and the loose rug.  I have no obvious reduction in my intellectual abilities in terms of speech and writing although my initiative to write a new blog has diminished during the last year or two.  It seemed such an easy task until recently. I am now more inclined to forget a name, particularly of a person, flower or tree which I am familiar with but which I cannot recall because of a sudden and unexpected confusion in an attempt to identify the word.

Of course, to return to the subject of one’s attitude to death, the limitations imposed by ageing, whether physical, situational, psychological, are factors in themselves which must influence one’s attitude.  One might clearly welcome death as a relief if life becomes more isolated and less tolerant and relevant in the minds of others of a different age and society.

Blogger and Editor 
Perhaps the greatest change in my life in the recent past has been caused by the loss of contemporary friends whose company and interests I shared and enjoyed so much.   I still share contact with my three generation family and friends but such contacts with the younger generations, added to limitations of hearing and comprehension, can be embarrassing compared to the interests which I enjoyed with my more intimate contemporaries. One is aware of the different interests of other generations and there are the problems of hearing during their more intensive conversations.    Naturally it is not surprising that their interests are different from mine.  My relationship with my wife, now 37 years in duration, has not changed although my more physical means of showing my feelings has reduced since my late 80s.  She is 23 years younger than me and happily her social life is consistent with such an age group and has not been changed by our age gap.   

I have followed a life-style which not only leads to longevity but which greatly reduces the length and severity of decrepitude which is still too common among our older community.  Appropriate adaptation to the normal changes of ageing is mandatory.  If we can remain active during the third stage of life and if we accept the inevitable changes which occur at this time; we will continue to have some influence in society despite hearing and sight changes, and loneliness and loss of friends and family. The elderly should be dealt with by education, adaptation and understanding. It is surprising how the occasional ‘phone call from family and close friends can maintain our touch with society.

Have I any regrets in recent years?  Yes, it was our inability to influence humanity about the major disaster which is facing our children and other living things as we are rapidly destroying the natural world on which we depend for our survival. In my short time of 93 years hundreds of animal and plant species have disappeared from the earth and continue to do so.  Because the changes are gradual we are not aware of them. Even more rapid changes are ignored. Witness the abrupt loss of the Passenger Pigeons in the United States (as per a previous blog) with little comment or concern by the public!  During my 93 years the human population has increased by more than three times and continues at a rate of 80 million a year. The drying up of water in rivers and lakes,  and changes in the oceans presage physical changes which may be incompatible with life as we know it now. Carbon changes too will make life intolerable.  The increase of carbon in the atmosphere during the last century is a substantial and glaring warning to us and it is evidently increasing at a semi-exponential rate. It will have a dire effect on living things sooner than we think. Our politicians are represented by an electorate which is deeply committed to wealth, social standing, personal wellbeing, power and comfort, and a disregard for our natural world.  We therefore cannot expect our politicians to lead us in our defence of Nature and the future of humanity. Who else can do so? They cannot deal with the symptoms of disaster let alone its causes – the declining morale and the poverty of some nations, our reaching for the sky in search of wealth, the overcrowding, the Mediterranean problem, the religious and internal political wars, and most of all the continued increase in the human population and the easy availability of the nuclear bomb when the problems of overcrowding and a decaying environment become intolerable. Hopefully the immediate forthcoming Paris conference will wake us up and our leaders too!

To return to my attitude to death, I have no sense of fear and I am comforted by my certainty that there can be no personal sequelae to follow. Death and its fear is an insubstantial illusion, like a dream. We do not even understand the world we are living in, its origins and limitations in terms of time and space. We will never understand these, and our invention of another world adds further to our ignorance and our confusion.  My only fear is for humanity and all our living species and the wonderful world we were provided with and which we may well destroy because of human arrogance, selfishness and ignorance.  My book (Survival and Humanity) appears next Spring and says it all!

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