“It’s a shame I had to wait until my body was riddled with cancer to learn how to live.” ~cancer patient, Staring at the Sun, by Irv Yalom
In his work with end-of-life patients, psychologist Irv Yalom remarked that, “Cancer seems to cure neuroses.” He found that the dying tend to “trivialize life’s trivia,” rearranging their life priorities and deepening their relationships with friends and loved ones.
Yalom coined these as “awakening experiences” -- encounters with death that lead to a vastly more fulfilling life.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just those facing chronic illness whose lives were transformed by encounters with death. Any patient who was able to tap into a greater awareness of their own mortality had the capacity to move towards a greatly enriched sense of life.
These awakening experiences often arose when patients faced major life milestones, like graduations, weddings, illness, loss, or major decisions. Yalom would help his patients get in touch with the death anxiety that came up at these times, asking his patients:
“Why are you afraid of death?”
Their answers would nearly always point toward some sense of an unlived life. To the degree that a patient had lived their life on someone else’s terms or failed to prioritize what they held most dear, to the same degree they would experience anxiety around death.
For many, this inquiry became a compass, helping re-orient their lives toward more vitality and authenticity.
Over the past several months, the pandemic has reminded us of our mortality and vulnerability. As of this writing, we have seen nearly 80,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. alone.
No matter how grandiose our illusions of competence and control were before the pandemic, we have now come face to face with the limits of our agency in the face of external forces. We may have put men on the moon and built cities of millions of people, but our society can still be brought to its knees by a microscopic biological invader.
This awareness of death and vulnerability is not comfortable. Our natural inclination is to turn away from these feelings, and thus to try and maintain our illusions of invincibility.
During the pandemic, I’ve often seen this occur through minimization. My friends in their 20s say, “At least I’m not in my 30s.” My friends in their 30s say, “At least I’m not in my 40s.” My parents in their late 50s say, “At least I’m not 65+, the real high risk group.”
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, there’s someone else with higher risk. I’ll bet in In nursing homes throughout the U.S., you can hear people saying, “I may be 73, but at least I never smoked!”
This helps to distance ourselves from the anxiety of, “Oh wow. I might actually die.” Yet, this encounter with mortality may be the greatest gift the pandemic has to offer.
For many of us not on the front lines, quarantine has become the new normal. Our day-to-day experience is un-dramatic and marked mainly by boredom, loneliness, and a yearning to get back to our pre-covid lives.
While in the early days of the pandemic, there was uncertainty around how bad the situation could get, there is now a growing sense that the worst is already behind us. We seem to have successfully “flattened the curve,” and any sense of our lives being imminently at risk has faded or fallen away completely.
But here’s a reality check:
Hundreds of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s have died of the virus in the past few months. Moreover, we’re beginning to see secondary effects of the virus on younger age groups, with young people now dying of strokes and children coming down with rare inflammatory diseases. Others who survive may have to deal with long-term lung scarring.
The reality is, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this virus. Your body could react poorly, and your life could drastically change, or even come to an end, over the next year.
Even if you come out alright, it’s possible that your friends and loved ones won’t be so lucky.
There is a scene in the movie Fight Club where the main characters abduct a convenience store clerk at gunpoint.
In the parking lot behind his store, they rifle through his wallet and find an expired community college I.D. The main character, Tyler Durden, threatens to kill the clerk, and then asks him a simple question,
Tyler: “What’d you want to be, Raymond K. Hessel?”
The clerk doesn’t respond, so Tyler cocks his gun and asks again.
Tyler: “The question, Raymond, was what did you want to be?”
The clerk frantically responds that he’d wanted to become a veterinarian, but found the schooling too hard, to which Tyler responds:
Tyler: “Would you rather be dead? Would you rather die here on your knees in the back of a convenience store?”
Eventually, Tyler lets him go, but says he’ll check back in 6 weeks to follow through on his threat unless Raymond is re-enrolled in school and on the path to fulfilling his dream.
As the clerk runs off, the main characters remark:
Narrator: “That wasn’t funny. What the f--- was the point of that?”
Tyler: “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you or I have ever tasted.”
Narrator: “You had to give it to him… it started to make sense… no fear, no distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.”
In a sense, this pandemic has abducted each of us at gunpoint and invited us to reflect on what really matters. Yet, many of us have chosen to wake up the next day, pretend that nothing happened, and go right back to work at the same old convenience store.
In the coming weeks and months, I invite you to notice your own inclination to turn away from death and vulnerability. It’s a natural human instinct, but instead, I’d invite you to see if you can allow yourself to be touched by death, and in turn, to transform your life.
This is not only an opportunity for each of us to pierce our own illusions of immortality, but also to honor those we have lost and are about to lose. Their deaths do not have to be in vain; they can serve the purpose of giving those that survive a chance to wake up to a vastly more fulfilling life.
Do not let this pandemic go to waste.
Invitations for reflection:
- Why, specifically, am I afraid of death?
- If I were to die in the next year, what would I most regret?
- Am I making the most of time with loved ones that I might very well lose?
- How might I live in such a way as to minimize the accumulation of future regrets?