I. 3. LOSS OF THIS LIFE NOT "DEATH"
Our basic choice: comfort vs. aliveness In the only life we know.
It cannot be emphasized enough that we do not have the option of avoiding dealing with our mortality throughout our lives. We will either deal with it consciously, using it to affirm life and to fully feel both the pain and joy of life. Or we will deal with it unconsciously, feeling less pain but also progressively becoming less alive. We will be comfortable. Or we will be alive. But we cannot be both. Either way, we will deal with death.
It is relatively easy to avoid thinking about or feeling our pain at the idea of disappearing forever, what we shall call here "death-pain". But it is impossible to avoid the unconscious consequences of doing so: using energy to repress the pain, engaging in addictive behaviors - from smoking to TV watching to workaholism - to kill it, or acting it out by withdrawing feeling from those close to us, separating ourselves from others, or even engaging in violence against them.
Our concern here is how to be truly alive in this life. We will not address the issue of possible life after death ( When Spiritual Experience Enlivens ), or what happens at the end of life, i.e. the concerns of the "death and dying" movement.
Our knowledge of our mortality affects every aspect of our lives at any age, including our ability to feel, relationships, sexuality, work, and child-rearing. It is thus transformative to face death in the prime of life, not to wait until we face physical death itself. To try and clarify this distinction, we will often use the term "mortality" to refer to our knowledge of death at any age, as opposed to "death" or "dying", referring to what occurs at the end of life.
Our knowledge of our mortality presents us with a fundamental dilemma vis-à-vis our experiences in this life:
(1) Evolution (or "intelligent design") means little if it does not favor those species who want to live more than those who do not. We are programmed to want to live. And the more we value experiences in this life which give us satisfaction - love, esthetics, physical pleasure, deep feeling, people close to us, children, adventure, nature, reading, entertainment, learning - the deeper our pain at our knowledge that we will one day be unable to experience them.
(2) But the more we seek to avoid this pain the more we unavoidably withdraw feeling from these experiences, deadening us. We will often, for example, pull back from intimacy with our partners or children because it is too painful. We will expend enormous reserves of energy in repressing our painful feelings, fatiguing and aging us before our time. And we will often tend to unconsciously act our death-pain out, by seeking to control others, focusing on money, security or work, living in fantasy, or over-identifying with an ethnic group, nation, religion or other "immortality project" that offers us hope of living beyond our creature-deaths.
The human dilemma is simple: aliveness and anguish, or denial and deadening. Either way we pay a price. Whatever choice we make, however, it is important to make it consciously.
It is also more important to make this choice in the prime of life than near the end. This is partly because doing so can improve our quality of life for a longer-time period, and even extend it, than if we wait until our final years. History is filled with examples, including the author of this website, of people who wished they had faced their death long before they did, people who feel "if only I had known then what I know now."
But it is also true, in some ways, that our denial of death has a far more negative impact upon us in the prime of life than at the very end. It is when we are full of life, enjoying the activities of this life, that the pain of our mortality most causes us to pull back from others and from life, or to act out our pain unwholesomely. Many find at the very end of life that the act of dying itself is more bearable than they had imagined, as they have already been forced to pull back from the experiences they value. They find they can accept what cannot be altered, and/or welcome the end as a relief from physical pain.
It is common in spiritual circles to make a useful distinction between "attachment to" and "preference for" life. The idea is that we can more fully enjoy the experiences of life if we accept their impermanence, and do not seek to hold onto them. This is a wise insight, and obvious when we consider such joys as an esthetic experience which can never be repeated or held onto. As Erich Fromm noted, the experience of "beholding" is indeed far richer than trying to "hold onto" something - whether a painting, person or possession.
But even such a fleeting and nonrepeatable experience of "beholding" has pain built into it. Indeed, the experience itself is precisely so rich because of the poignancy of the combination of rapturous enjoyment and our full knowledge that it is unrepeatable. Much of Japanese esthetics, for example, is built upon this fundamental life-experience.
Again, we can face our death, be alive and feel the pain. Or we can deny our death and lead a more deadened life. But we cannot avoid living one way or the other.