Where are we going?
Perhaps only God could put it into words
Last week I interviewed Sheldon Solomon, Professor of Psychology at Skidmore College, about death anxiety and its impact on our behaviour, discussing the link between death awareness and self-awareness, how cultural beliefs are used to anaesthetise death anxiety, how Western culture has the ironic effect of exacerbating that very anxiety, and why the solutions lie with imagination and creativity.
In the episode, Sheldon discusses Kierkegaard's philosophy of human self-awareness, that human beings are differentiated from other conscious beings because we have a sense of being here and knowing that we are here. Not only does this induce self-awareness, but an awareness of our own mortality. To manage this death anxiety, as Sheldon names it, we create cultural beliefs which imbue our lives with value and purpose. If we lived without meaning, Sheldon argues, the terror of our own mortality would impede us from ever achieving anything.
Here we see two concurrent strands: the first is knowledge, the knowledge of one's own death. The second is imagination: the awe at the potentiality of life, the awe of being alive, and the capacity to imagine values and purpose and culture in order to manage the knowledge of one’s death.
In Eastern cultures we see the ability to create beliefs which are very much in tandem with the nature of life, with the duality of life, with the awareness of death, and such knowledge being celebrated rather than feared. The Tao—an Eastern philosophy of the way of the universe—is a joyously absurd, oxymoronic celebration of the very nature of life in death; the awareness of the oneness of existence and, simultaneously, the smallness of each individual. Following the Tao, Life is celebrated as a collective force rather than individuals striving for each to leave their mark, as if only this will have made life meaningful when death comes knocking.
But does Kierkegaard’s philosophy still stand in a globalised, homogenised world which values individuals for their labour input on a global market which reduces the majority of human interactions to financial trade?
Are we truly here? Do we have a sense of here and now?
Where is here?
In the minority world—the West, the global North—we are utterly divorced from biophysical reality and the reality of the crisis—that we are careering headfirst towards the sixth mass extinction event. We are in the process of a drawn-out and violent mass suicide. But how can a sense of here be found in a cascading crisis converging across the globe like a web of steel cutting through ecosystems and constricting possibility?
We are not here and, sadly, we are not there either—not on the frontlines of drought, of famine, of war, of crop failure, of logged rainforests and acidifying oceans.
So what is here? Where is here? Is it the online space in which borders, happily, bleed away? Or the online space where hatred reigns as the cultural beliefs to manage that same death anxiety?
Is here the desk you sit at? The bus you’re riding? Is here made of birdsong? Is it full of fumes?
Is here a planet on the brink of disaster and a world full of both deep care and engineered suffering?
Can here be both personal and global? How can we embed ourselves here in a world that needs freed from the stranglehold of outdated ideals?
What is in Western thought which drives the beliefs causing planetary and personal harm in a bid to manage death anxiety? What hides at the heart of Western thought which refuses to let us be here?
Sheldon moves through the history of Western philosophy which has celebrated absolute, timeless ideals made in God's image; a linearity; an end-point of the eternal which is man’s true home; an idyllic permanence in which we will live forever—which can be understood as having access to free and unlimited energy.
It is this natural plane full of limitations which is profane, undeserving of the great mind of man. It, then, does not deserve our respect as we try to escape it.
The irony of individualism
To be aware of one's own mortalities, to be aware of oneself, highlights the oneness of the individual when not shrouded in a philosophy which celebrates the oneness of all individuals together. In the episode, Sheldon highlights that our Western culture prizes individualism, it is the value that we're using to manage our own death anxiety. However, it's also the very value that exacerbates death anxiety.
Awareness of one's own individuality, of one's own self, of one's own mortality, in a culture that deliberately dislocates and isolates people from one another, and therefore the collective Life and identity—which will continue to live long after this biological organism has disappeared—means the very thing that we are using to fill the void is only making our experience of being alive, and our death anxiety, worse. If we were not so attached to our individual experience of life and recognised, instead, the continuation of all life even after one’s own death, and our continued relationship with life even in death (for energy cannot be destroyed or made, it merely changes), then perhaps we would, frankly, treat ourselves, each other, and the planet better.
Culture is meant to restore a psychological equanimity, Sheldon says, explaining that, certainly in the West, and around the world considering this culture has been a global export, we are seeing increasing levels of disordered psychosis: depression, anxiety, mental illness, behavioural disorders. Sheldon’s research shows an increase in disordered behaviour when death is on our minds—and that, today, we are “drenched in death”.
Perhaps this explains why we are driving the planet to destruction in a bid to escape our own death anxiety. That drive has a growth imperative, it has a compound interest effect; the more that we engage with the culture that we are using to manage our anxiety, the worse our anxiety gets. And the only thing that we can do is return to that cultural belief which is creating the problem.
So what to do?
As a binary, the duality of knowledge and imagination must, therefore, imply unity. Let us think of this duality as Death and Life—the knowledge of one's own death allows for the awe of life.
Kierkegaard wrote that there are two emotions or moods: awe and dread. If knowledge is a form of death, metaphorically speaking, and imagination is a form of life, let us reimagine how imagination can be used as a tool.
Sheldon says that our psychology as human beings—as biological organisms—is to respond to immediate threats in the environment, that we just aren't quite wired to perceive the bigger picture. Yet we must perceive the bigger picture to find a sense of being here and to overcome these cultural drivers which are destroying the planet.
I believe this is where imagination as Life is vital. Normally, we associate imagination with a form of otherness: with unreality, with fantasy. We imagine possibilities, we imagine things that do not exist. Perhaps, though, in order to grasp the big picture we need to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. We need to step back and, by stepping back and imagining, we see reality.
Imagination, then, becomes a form of seeing. It becomes a form of engaging with reality and, therefore, a mode of creating reality. Imagination is what makes it possible to imbue life with awe. Imagination is what makes it possible to enact change. Imagination makes it possible to grasp at understanding.
This defiantly attacks our understanding of knowledge and the post-enlightenment, rationalist, mechanistic view of the world that knowledge is that which can only be proved and be measured. But we know the big picture cannot be modelled at once, it cannot even be contained within language. Perhaps it can in Art—and what is Art if not imagination? And what is imagination if not the defiant act of seeing? And what is seeing if not being alive?
And how fortunate we become in that moment to understand that we are alive, that death is not the end but an act of imagination so vast perhaps only God could put it into words.
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