You know that you exist, and that some day you will die. This knowledge can either be a terrible burden or a great opportunity. The good news is you get to choose!
For many people, knowing that they’ll die one day is so terrifying that they’ll do everything and anything to avoid talking or even thinking about it. Theories like the one most famously publicized by Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning, 1973 book, The Denial of Death, reveal the lengths people go to ignore the dilemma of mortality, ultimately acting out aggressively and defensively in ways harmful to themselves and others.
Living in fear of death
Since the 1980s, three social psychologists, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszcznski, have been empirically testing Becker’s theories and have proven them accurate! In their 2015 book, A Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszcznski documented hundreds of tests along with observations and analysis about human behaviour, and it’s a fascinating read.
Over and over again, they concluded that that when people live in fear of death and then get reminded of their mortality even in subtle or subliminal ways, they behave in ways that entrench their world-views while at the same time discrediting, and making “wrong” views that are different. The book also blames the “death reminders” for a myriad of unhealthy activities, negative emotions and detrimental self perceptions.
So how can death awareness be a good thing?
While the book does not paint a rosy picture of human nature, at the end the authors share their realization that “when looked at a certain way, our awareness of death yields a keener appreciation for life.” (page 216) They suggest that one of the approaches to living with death in a non-destructive way is to become more aware and accepting of the reality of your mortality, a phrase that Michelle and I have been using even before I read this book.
Of course it was neither we, nor Becker, nor the authors of The Worm at the Core, who were the first to write about the importance of coming to terms with death. “Since antiquity, theologians and philosophers…have emphasized the importance of accepting our mortality as a means to diminish the destructive effects of unconscious death fears and to enhance appreciation of everyday life.” (page 218)
Consciously contemplating your mortality will enrich your life.
Like the authors, we believe that consciously contemplating your inevitable death helps you become more self aware and in control of the choices you make. You get to “wake up” before your time’s up. This is a very good thing.
And so far, after working with a small sample of people in workshops where they uncovered the scope and feelings around their inevitable death, and then wrote Love Letters, Heart Wills, and/or “Departure Directions”, WILLOW has anecdotally demonstrated this to be true. Bring on the research grants!
Love Letters, Heart Wills and Departure Directions
in early 2016 Michelle and I conducted two different series of in-person circles; one on writing Love Letters and a Heart Will, and the other on writing Departure Directions. In Love Letters and Heart Wills, fifteen people came together in three groups to investigate in a variety of ways, how they feel about death and dying, and what and who matters most to them in their lives. They used what they discovered to write a “Heart Will” to be a read at their end-of-life ritual, and at least one “Love Letter” to be given to someone special to them around the time of their inevitable death.
In “Departure Directions”, a smaller number of people contemplated and articulated their core values, examined what meaning they give to death and dying, looked at a range of ways dead bodies are cared for and ritualized around the world. We spent time envisioning how people in their communities can take charge of many aspects of caring for them when they died. They used all that they discovered to create a document for their family and friends, about how they want their own body looked after when they die, and by whom.
In testimonials written after the workshops, participants said they became motivated and more intentional about how they want to live their lives. They began to connect more deeply with people in their lives, and experienced an increased awareness of living in the present while cultivating gratitude for the profound beauty of the world.
At WILLOW we are committed to helping people live full and authentic lives by facing and contemplating the reality of their mortality. If this idea inspires you, please check out our current offerings.
And finally, please join the discussion below, with the answer to this juicy question: