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Does Thinking About Death Change Us for the Better?
Part 1 in our four-part series on life and death
Reading time: 12 min.
Answer: Maybe, maybe not.
Today is my fiftieth birthday, which seems both exciting and impossible. I took a longevity test—online, not at the Mayo Clinic or any other lab—and although my chronological age is fifty, my biological age is thirty-seven. The vainest part of me would have preferred twenty-seven, but thirty-seven actually seems about right. I feel and think like someone in her thirties. Death seems very far away.
This morning, I tried to meditate on what I want my legacy to be. In Buddhism, the practice is called maranasati: Remember death. In Islam, it’s Tadhkirat al-Mawt. In the West, it’s usually referred to as memento mori: Remember you must die. (The old joke is, Who’s mori?)
Memento mori dates back to Socrates, but it’s more than a philosophy. Over millennia, people have used images of (and actual) skulls, skeletons, and other funereal objects to invoke it. Artists, writers, architects, musicians, dancers, and others have used coffins, dead flowers, hourglasses, and the grim reaper to remind viewers and readers that we all die.
There’s an upside—two upsides—to practicing memento mori. Doing so can help us reorient our goals. We might stop striving for achievement and instead concentrate on our inner lives and how well we regulate our emotions. We may start to reprioritize relationships. Knowing our time is limited, we’ll abandon shallow friendships and focus on family and close friends.
Thoughts of death can also make us more grateful. In one study, subjects were given a specific death scenario (e.g., waking up in a burning building, unable to get out). Some showed increased levels of gratitude for simply being alive.
That said, memento mori has serious downsides. Scientific studies show that just reading about death alters the brain’s circuitry and ratchets up anxiety and stress levels. One study found that when participants were asked to respond to the statement I am afraid of a painful death, the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex—the two areas of the brain that have to do with stress and anxiety—were activated. (The control group was given the statement, I am panicked when I am sitting in the dentist’s waiting room.)
Thinking about death can induce passivity. Understanding that life is short, as the cliché goes, and death is inevitable can lead us to stop making plans.
Depending on several factors—age, how often we think about death, and whether we believe death to be imminent—we may become more judgmental. One study found that in response to reminders of death, adults between the ages of 17 and 34 become intensely disapproving of others. Older adults between the ages of 57 and 92 didn’t. The younger group was harshest in judgments about moral wrongs like criminal activity. If we’re between the ages of 18 and 21, we might become intolerant of the elderly. The aged are seen as an unwelcome reminder of death, people to be avoided and ostracized.
Thinking about death can increase one’s conservative biases. It can make us believe that white supremacists are okay (as in this study), become more politically conservative, and stop supporting civil rights movements by marginalized groups.
As consumers, we may become strangely nationalistic. The more we consider death, the more we crave local foods and drinks as opposed to foreign ones. (Of course, the study that showed this seems terribly flawed. It tested domestic versus foreign soft drinks. Dr. Pepper versus some Swiss soft drink called Rivella. Rivella is made with milk and tastes of ginger and is often described as “herbal.” Up against Dr. Pepper, did Rivella even have a chance?)
It can cause us to crave fame—celebrity being one of the more obvious and desperate ways to try to feel immortal. In one study, after thinking about death, participants were more likely to want stars (as in astronomy) named after them.
I can feel stricken by anxiety, but I’m far from passive. I’m more conservative than I was in my twenties and thirties, but I’m still on the far, far left end of the political spectrum. Judgment about others is something we all struggle with. The elderly weren’t on my radar in my twenties, thirties, and forties; now, I notice the woman always sitting on the bench when I take my afternoon walk, the one who looks chronologically eighty but with the spirit of someone in her sixties, and I admire her for aging so well, as the saying goes. Nationalism isn’t a big part of my life, but I appreciate living in one of the richest countries in the world with luxuries like clean drinking water more than I once did. I don’t crave fame, but I want my memoir to reach and help millions and improve the mental health care system.
To meditate on death is to consider our symbolic immortality. The Harvard psychiatrist Richard Lifton said that the four types of symbolic immortality are fundamental to finding meaning in life and coming to terms with death: biological (believing that you live on through your children and grandchildren and subsequent heirs), religious (having faith that the soul continues after the body shuts down), that of nature (finding consolation in the fact that nature is limitless and eternal), and creative (knowing that your work will outlast you).
I have no children and no religion. Climate change has made the third suspect. (Plus, I grew up and live in an urban area and although I appreciate nature, I don’t feel a strong connection to it. Except for the sky. The sky gets me, especially when it’s crisply blue with vividly white clouds.) But I do feel a certain amount of creative symbolic immortality through my book and other writing.
This morning, that’s about as far as I got. Instead of meditating on the fact that I’ll die and trying to determine what else I want to leave behind, I found myself playing with my plump, floofy cat. He’s a Birman, a breed of cats bred to catch mice in Burman temples. I thought this meant he’d be calm, which is why I named Siddhi after Siddhartha. He’s not calm.
But he is stunningly handsome. His parents are both show cats—his father is the number 1 Birman tabby in the world and the number 4 Birman in the world. (Tabby cats have an M marking on their foreheads and stripes on their legs.) Siddhi was supposedly too shy to be a show cat. He also has one white marking on his leg that’s slightly too long and would have disqualified him from competition. His other markings are perfect, and he has a champion tail. (Note: he’s not shy. I’m convinced he faked it to avoid having to do the hard work of being a show cat.)
(See massive photo below.)
Siddhi makes me laugh, especially when he runs across my wood floors and, unable to obtain purchase, careens into the wall and then keeps going as if nothing happened. When I pet him, my stomach unclenches and all anxiety seems to leave my body. My bank transactions will show how much I love to please him with toy wands and obscenely expensive freeze-dried chicken treats and baskets to sleep in. He’s cat napping in one of his many baskets now.
On my deathbed, will I regret all the time I spent with him?
How can we know what to do with our lives or what we’ll wish we’d done?
Next week, part 2 in our four-part series on life and death: Why do some people want to live forever?
#curious #mentalhealth #onbeing #startwithaquestion #life #death #mementomori