America has a dysfunctional relationship with death. Our average lifespan today is longer than it’s ever been, but we obsess over health more than ever before. When people’s relatives or close friends are diagnosed with a disease, they act like their life is ruined or cursed in some way. They post on Facebook looking for sympathy, and tell everyone about the tragedy their life has become. Our culture reinforces this with our Relays for Life, our candlelight vigils, our pink ribbons at football games. God forbid you become one of the “unlucky” ones actually dealing firsthand with these (extremely prevalent and common) diseases. What did you ever do to deserve that?
This reaction is so strong because we have such a powerful denial of death today. A staggering percentage of our population lives their lives as if they will live forever. The idea of death is so foreign a concept to them that it truly is a blow to their ego and the comfort of their psyche whenever they are confronted with the reality of death.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t wish cancer, or heart disease, or aneurisms upon anybody. All of these things suck. But compared to the realities of death faced by every previous generation, we have become a bunch of spoiled brats where mortality is concerned.
Why has it come to this point?
There are a few factors, really. We have the luxury of ignoring death today because so many advancements have been made to combat infant death rates, childhood diseases, and many of the natural threats that humans once faced. However, we are now so completely coddled that the idea of any threat to our health is seen as inherently “unfair.”
But beyond that, the deeper culprit is capitalism.
Corporations drive the media message with their advertising dollars. That’s why today we still fear cancer like a lurking serial killer creeping up behind us in an alley, even though a third of Americans will get cancer. Shouldn’t it just seem like a normal way to die at this point? Not if Big Pharma wants to keep getting billions poured into research, development, and new drugs.
So we continue to deify “survivors” as if they came back from ‘Nam, seeing them on talk shows and commercials, or giving speeches at colleges. If they can survive death, maybe I can too! It’s just another form of soap opera, but one that fans the flames of people’s fear of death. Death is the big bad boogeyman, and anyone who doesn’t “seek treatment” (expensive procedures, surgeries, and drugs offered by the Medical/Pharmaceutical industry) is a social pariah. Shame on you!
It is truly amazing how our society has been steered toward our current paradoxical way of living: Ignore death even while it’s all around you (so you can keep having fun! and spending like a good consumer), and then become frantic and despondent when a common fatal disease comes calling for you or someone you know.
My own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer last month. She told me her diagnosis was early-stage and not life threatening, so I didn’t get too worried. It has a high survival rate, and is a very common disease. Of course I was concerned and wanted her to get healthy, but the fact that I wasn’t crying or calling her every 20 minutes made the family feel like I “didn’t care.” Apparently there is a quota for the amount of sympathy you are supposed to offer in these situations. After all, she had cancer– that’s really bad!
I did discover that telling other people my mom had breast cancer got me a lot of sympathy. “Oh God, cancer… really…” People really felt for me. I guess part of it is a social thing; people don’t want to seem unsympathetic. The funny thing is, I only started to worry at the times when other people were treating the situation like it was really dire.
My mother is 60 years old. Isn’t that the age where health starts becoming an issue for everybody? As in, literally every human being on the planet? It’s like people expect to just wake up dead one morning. “She died of being perfectly healthy!”
I didn’t panic when I learned about my mom’s condition. I know declining health and eventual death is a part of life (the fact that this distinguishes me is the problem). I want her to be as happy and as comfortable as possible, for as long as possible, but I don’t need to add extra dramatic emotion on top of it, to “prove” how much I love her, or convince others of how tough my life is.
If I found out she had terminal cancer and six weeks to live, I would be heartbroken and fly home to spend that time with her. I know when the day comes that she finally dies, I will feel a huge sense of loss. What I hope I won’t do is act like something has been stolen from me or that some profound injustice has been done to me because my mother died of (something).
We shouldn’t spend our days obsessed with death; that can be a crippling burden. If you fear too much, you will never take any risks.
What you should do– especially as a man– is make friends with death. As early and as often as possible.
Accepting your own mortality and letting go of the ego-driven attachment to your own “precious” life truly sets you free. The stakes are not as high as you think. It’s just your one little fucking life. So make the most of it. It could end tomorrow, or today. Don’t live by anyone else’s rules, because they’re almost always playing a different game.
When you let yourself take risks– comforted by the fleeting nature of life– you will be living from a place of honesty.
And honesty is the fire from which true power is born.