Learning to Die

It's one thing to be concerned about the death of loved ones, and to be memorializing all our hero celebrity icon/saints. It's quite another to be prepared for your own demise.
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"Fear of death is illogical," Mr. Spock says in the new, exciting trailer for Star Trek Beyond.

"Fear of death is what keeps us alive," is the response from Bones.

Are you ready for the end? Your end? Is it something you fear? Is it possible to embrace your own death, as good ole Spock seemed to do at the beginning of the previous film, Star Trek Into Darkness?

It's one thing to be concerned about the death of loved ones, and to be memorializing all our hero celebrity icon/saints. It's quite another to be prepared for your own demise. Perhaps it is just too morbid to reflect on one's own mortality in this culture that worships youth, permanence, health, and love. Perhaps for some, deep contemplation of aging, impermanence, suffering, and death is anti-American when the sacred creed embedded in the sacred text of the Declaration of Independence is the sacrosanct right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Perhaps, on the other hand, reflection on one's own death can actually enhance life, bring the greatest liberation, and allow for the true attainment of happiness. Is it possible that, as Jeff Tweedy from Wilco sings in one of my favorite tunes, War on War, "you have to learn how to die, if you want to be alive." Life's journey has only one outcome, whether you are homeless and on the streets, or Donald Trump and living in palatial luxury. Let's not forget that Death is indeed the great equalizer no matter who you are or your status in life. Forget the "art of the deal" when Death comes for you. No negotiations, no threats, no manipulations. It is the price we pay for....life.

So given this common fate, learning to die may be the most valuable lesson any of us can learn. Anyone interested? Many observers like to perpetuate the simplistic and inaccurate notion that America is a death denying culture, that we speak in euphemisms to hide from the reality of death, that we keep corpses out of sight to shield us from material mortal realities, that our obsessions with youth distract us from the harsher and harder truths about inevitable aging and dying.

You think that's true? How would you characterize American attitudes toward death? One of the best historical analyses of attitudes toward death in western culture is by Philippe Aries, a French intellectual who wrote in the mid-twentieth century. He identifies four key attitudes from the middle ages to the 20th century.

Aries begins with "tamed death," an attitude of acceptance and familiarity, with individuals forewarned when death was near and able to take steps to prepare for it (the medieval stories of Lancelot and Tristan are models he held up for this attitude). Second is "one's own death," a shift in attitudes that takes place in the 11th and 12th centuries and deeply rooted in Christian ideas about the judgment of the soul at the time of death. Third is a more romantic attitude that emerges in the 18th and 19th centuries. "Thy death" is a new perspective that shifts the judgment of the individual soul at death to greater attention and drama associated with the death of others, which unleashes a great deal of emotions, ritual mourning, and efforts to memorialize the lost loved one. Finally, what Aries refers to as "forbidden death" emerges in the early 20th century, an era when mourning is privatized, dying is medicalized and secluded in hospital spaces, and avoiding the reality of death is the new norm.

Whatever one may think of this cultural scheme, the crucial value of Aries's work is that it places human responses to death in an historical context, one that emphasizes both continuities and change rather than attempting to generalize about one universal attitude that exists in the west. Moving beyond the west, anyone with the slightest knowledge about Buddhist cultures, Hindu cultures, indigenous cultures--basically non-monotheistic perspectives--understands the incredible variations and diversity of how individuals around the world and through time have confronted the reality of death. All of this to say, there is no one way, no one right way, to respond to and make sense of the end of life.

A deeper dive into these attitudes in diverse religious cultures also reveals something that is fairly but not universally common: teachings and practices that encourage individuals to reflect deeply on their own inevitable death. Spiritual exercises, if you will, that bring focus and attention to the reality that is to come. Buddhist meditations on decomposing corpses; Quranic verses encouraging Muslims to not ignore one's mortality and prepare for death daily; and Christianity's focus on one's own death in light of the death of Jesus.

Forget about Common Core. Forget about STEM. If you want a real general education that is practical, relevant, and valuable, begin your own intellectual and spiritual training in preparing to die. Or at least begin to think about what you think about your own death, whether with the help of your own religious cultures and traditions, with the more pervasive and influential sources from popular cultures, like film or music, or with the numerous courses on death and dying at local colleges and universities, such as my own Death and Dying course at Emory (which for the fall has a ridiculous enrollment of 275). Once you take the plunge into the depths of your own consciousness and face your own mortality, you may never be the same, and America may be transformed into a much more humane and thoughtful place.

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