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III. 1. Action On Behalf of Life

We become most truly alive when we not only revere life, but act on Its behalf.

The psychological journey described above is only a part of our journey to true aliveness. For our psychological success in learning to feel our pain about our own mortality, and to transform it into appreciation for the preciousness of life, is incomplete. We are not simply individuals but part of our community, family, religion, ethnic group, nation and, ultimately, all life itself. We are only truly alive when we not only identify with all life, but act on its behalf.

And we are most motivated to act on behalf of life when we revere it. Denial of death reduces our reverence for, and commitment to, life. When we live as if we will never die we live as if our life was endless rather than the rare, precious and unique gift it is.

A genuine life-affirming death awareness inevitably leads to a reverence for life. For though it begins first with ourselves, and those closest to us, it cannot stop there. Reverence for life cannot be limited. If it is genuine reverence, it extends outwards to embrace it all. We do not feel more pain for American soldiers who die in Iraq than the larger number of Iraqi citizens who are killed daily - and vice versa. And we cannot cut ourselves off from the pain of Africans facing genocide, starvation or AIDS just because they live far away or do not look like us. We also act to save the biosphere, because reverence for life also extends forward in time, as we act now so that our grandchildren and descendants can live.

It is important to note that a process that sees us first face our pain about our own death, and then expand our concern outwards and forwards to the pain of others, is the opposite of how death anxiety usually influences social and political action. Too often in history people use social action or politics as an "immortality project", i.e. a means of reducing their death anxiety, in which success is meant to prove that one is more deserving of immortality than others, and/or will live on in "history".

This can be highly dangerous, as when leaders wage wars in an unconscious attempt to live beyond the grave by "making their mark upon history," or people surrender key aspects of their lives a charismatic leader, political cause, or religious endeavor. But even at their most benign, e.g. when a wealthy person gives money to have a college dormitory named after them, "immortality projects" do not enhance a person's experience of aliveness. Such actions may be satisfying. But they do not transform people's lives.

When we first transform our sense of being by facing our pain at our own mortality and transforming it into energy for life, however, we experience a deep connection with all humanity. When we then engage in social or political action, it is as an expression of this deep connection, rather than an attempt to stand out in the unconscious hope that we will thereby deserve salvation more than others.

When we focus on our sadness at our own mortality, it can lead to a deep identification with every other human being on this earth, who faces the same dilemma. If we are to be truly alive, this will lead to taking action to help others. Such action can focus on those in our immediate circle, on people we know personally. Or, in its highest expression, it can lead to social and political action seeking to reduce the pain of those we do not know. It is no coincidence that the leaders most honored by history have usually experienced a deep sense of aliveness and been part of mass movements seeking to improve humanity, rather than those who have been primarily motivated by a desire for political power or wealth.