Monday, July 27, 2009

The great problem is facing death

The great problem is facing death. We are conscious of it. We know we will die. And while we know death in a way that rats and rabbits don’t, we still cope in similar ways: we narrow down the world to something we can handle.

We don’t think about the vast indifferent universe and our tiny part in it all. We instead focus on getting the groceries and mowing the lawn. In other words, we develop a certain obliviousness to the great unfathomable terrors of our existence. If we didn’t cope in some way, it might be hard to get out of bed in the morning.

And so, most of us put all kinds of meaning in things and people in our lives. We infuse our consciousness with a sense of self. We layer on this grand illusion all kinds of ambitions and hopes and dreams. We keep our eye on small problems, like what we will have for lunch or whether or not we will get a raise.

In this way, we build some self-protection for ourselves against the reality of our existence. Ensconced warmly in this protective illusion, we are free to go about our business and not worry about the meaningless nature of our existence and the absolute futility of the struggle.

In short, we bite off what we can chew and no more. We forget about the rest. Society would judge this normal behavior. A man so embalmed in the fluid of his fantasies, society would dub “well-adjusted.”

A neurotic, by contrast, is someone who refuses to live the illusion and suffers from it. As the Otto Rank, the Austrian psychoanalyst put it:

“If man is the more normal, healthy and happy, the more he can successfully repress, displace, deny, rationalize, dramaticize himself and deceive others, then it follows that the suffering of the neurotic comes from painful truth… He is much nearer to the actual truth psychologically than the others and it is just that from which he suffers.”

In other words, a neurotic is robbed of that ability or instinct which gives him the power to believe his own illusions.

And here, we come to the absurd man…

The absurd man is somewhere between the two. He, too, does not believe the illusions, but he chooses not to, whereas the psychotic does not exercise such control.

Unlike the neurotic, the absurd man does not suffer from an inability to believe his illusions. Instead, the absurd man is grateful he has seen past them. He faces death and a meaningless existence cheerfully. It does not terrify him. In fact, he celebrates this reality and finds it liberating.

A man who truly drinks in the idea that he will die, and his life has no meaning or purpose, is a man who is free from the petty concerns of this life. He is free to just be. And he is happy.


  1. Aye, and free to observe Sparrow's maxim: "Take What You Can. Give Nothin' Back."

    A man my rot like a dog in a six foot cell, yet never be stripped of his treasure chest of memories...

    And what say you to the merry freebooter who sucks the very marrow from the bones of life... knowing full well the hangman's noose awaits, yet sparing not a thought for the capricious wench called "fate."

    Eat, drink and be wicked merry, for tomorrow we die with a gleam in our eye...

  2. I was pleased to see you mention Otto Rank - great psychoanalyst. A book that would greatly compliment this post is Becker's "Denial of Death," which won the the Pulitzer Prize back in the 60's, I believe. He does an in-depth analysis of Rank, Freud, Jung and others, and comes to a similar conclusion about facing death --- yet he finds the brave absurdity, surprisingly, in religion. Check it out - it's well worth the read.

    A for a movie that illustrates the principle of recognizing the illusions and choosing not to see them, I recommend "A Beautiful Mind." Again, a similar take/outlook on life to that espoused in this blog post, yet with a different outcome/conclusion/way-of-being.

  3. We certainly agree on Denial of Death - one of the most influential books we have read.

    Re: Beautiful Mind, we actually find Nash's ultimate decision (to live alongside his apparitions rather than seek to banish them) quite similar to our own outlook. In our view, all people are essentially apparitions, with the concept of the "self" simply an incredibly seductive delusion.

    Thus, in our opinion Nash doesn't go far enough. While he "knows" his friend Charles does not exist, for example, we would argue there is no substantive difference between the "existence" of Charles and that of Nash's wife (or anyone else who physically exists). In other words, if the self is indeed illusory, then none of the people we interact with exist in any meaningful sense...and neither do we!

  4. I have had several "near-death" experiences. This life, with its short span, is a pittance in eternity. The soul or whatever you wish to call that which directs the show, feels real and eternal. Life on 3D Earth is like a brief vacation or job. You do it and afterward can say, okay that's done, now what?

    Near-death, some may argue, is not the same as death. Unless you know a ghost (not believe in ghosts, it's not the same thing) unless you know a ghost or experienced something similar to my experiences, you really can't say. And a ghost or someone like me can only give their version of the event that they experienced.

    I have found that any words I use to describe my near-death experiences will evoke from the reader or listener emotional responses that they draw from their own experience, even if that experience is merely a comment from a loved one when there were a few years old, or a scene from a movie, a fragment of thought that lodged in their mind, a response they have which may or may not be similar to my known experience.

    Believing and knowing can be the same, but few people I've met seem to *know* anything about death. But most humans are always willing to give you their opinion.