The things that bother us

December 6, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

Tonight I’m feeling anxious about the possibility of an immense economic collapse.  I’ve been reading about lots of people being laid off.  Most of us with 401K’s are afraid to even look at our quarterly statements.  The country is running out of fossil fuel and there isn’t anything realistic to replace it.

And then I stopped and thought:  These things are not certain and they might not be nearly as bad as I fear, yet I am sitting here worried about them.  On the other hand, I am a human animal who is guaranteed to be dead in the next 70 years, probably a lot sooner.

How is it that I can wake up worrying about such uncertainties, yet rarely am I nervous about my own certain impending death?  How can we find time to fret about uncertain things (like the economy) and even little things (e.g., cleaning the house and whether the city will fill potholes on my street) yet we rarely contemplate our own deaths.  Even when we consider writing a will or buying life insurance do we feel shudder and sweat that we are doing these things because we’ve all been given death sentences.   We are so incredibly good at distracting ourselves.

We fret about so many things (big and small), but we aren’t concerned about our own impending certain death and the deaths of our close friends and family?   I’m being haunted by a post I wrote two days ago. Maybe we do panic about our deaths, even when we don’t articulate that panic.  Maybe it’s true that we are so terrified about our own deaths that we’ve invented and erected elaborate cultural scaffolds designed to distract ourselves from our animal natures.   You know, things such as cosmetics and clothes to hide our animal imperfections and limitations.  And abstract cultural concoctions such as “love” and “romance’ to distract ourselves from our animal passions.  And, of course, there is religion to keep us from fretting about death itself.

Many of these gimmicks and cultural inventions are billion dollar endeavors, of course.  That’s how important it is to distract ourselves.  The immense amount of money we spend on frivolous distractions, for instance, is only one measure of the fear that we fear.  Perhaps that’s why we are such suckers for an entertainment industry that so often gives us only a constant and mindless stream of bright and shiny things.  This deep need to distract ourselves explains why televisions are on for eight hours every day in so many households.  That need to distract ourselves explains (in part) why we shop with such energy for things we don’t need.  And, of course, the amount of time and energy people pour into religion is legendary.

And what kind of monster am I to be such an iconoclast?  Not that I can stop my own thoughts that run through my own head, but how can I possibly be so arrogant as to have faith in my public “mission,” my public iconoclasm?

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Category: American Culture, Entertainment, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Pat Whalen says:

    but how can I possibly be so arrogant as to have faith in my public “mission,”

    It only matters that you question your "mission" from time to time.

  2. Karl says:

    People seek distractions in life for more reasons than putting off the inevitable. People seek distractions to not have to deal with what's really on their minds and what really troubles their souls.

    Most people over forty that I know have come to terms with their deaths, whether they have hope in some kind of a spiritual existence or not.

    Those people however that seek a violent individualistic martrys death that takes the lives of others in the process as a just way to please God and gain promises in the after life are delusional.

    Fear of death is not a huge issue for someone who has hope and trust in the reason for why they exist. Islamic zealots are somehow convinced they will be rewarded for killing others by convoluted logic. However if they are really judged on the basis of what they believe they are really religious.

    The death of someone who accepts the public mission of Jesus Christ by confessing him as their Lord and Savior may seem delusional to you, but to those who believe it really is a hope filled approach to life and even though they realize they make mistakes, they don't in any way believe that ongoing decisions to lower expectations are what the public mission of Jesus was all about.

    I guess I am forced to assume that it is not a religion when a human animal says there is no reason to fear death because all it is, is a cessation of existence. This means to me that you have come to terms with the reason(s) for your existence. To me it is a religion, to you it is just the basic facts of life and death as a human animal.

    I think I undertand why you have questions as to why you think other people may fear death.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    It is not to die. It is to die well.

  4. Karl says:

    Spoken like an animal with a purpose in both life and death.

    How praytell does an animal die well?

  5. Alison says:

    Erich, I think it's related to control. Every creature has a built-in desire to survive, and to make that survival as pleasant as possible. Those who can affect their environments to not only survive but enhance their existence will do so. From the most basic needs for food, warmth, safety, living things will search for the optimal, and change location and even behavior to attain it. The more complex the creature, the more complex the needs. Look at wild creatures that learn how to get food from humans – from the animals that head straight for trash cans to the ones that do cute tricks in the park.

    Positive rewards reinforce the behaviors that enhance the quality of life, and you can see that in humans right from the beginning. Our recognition of what we can do to increase fulfillment of needs starts early on, and that in turn starts to form our ideas of what gives us pleasure. For example, a child might take up an interest not because it is intrinsically enjoyable to him, but because it gets attention from and companionship with a parent. In one family, a child will grow up watching sports on TV, but that same child might instead become a chef – depending on whether his parent spent time with him in front of the TV or in the kitchen.

    In either of those cases, though, the child learns that this is a way he can control his environment. And that's where it ties in with your thought – a situation in our lives that we can control, or that can affect what we can control or how we can control it, is going to have much more impact on our daily thoughts. We're going to speculate changes we might have to make, the different outcomes that might result, all the possibilities that might make difference in the qualities of life we enjoy. When a person is worried about something, from how his appearance is going to get him positive attention, to working out a plan for a long and comfortable retirement, the focus is on controlling something to attain a positive result.

    With an issue like death, though, you don't really have control, so you can't think of it that way. Yes, you can fear it, or you can change habits in the hope of forestalling it, but you can't come up with a plan to make it happen a certain way. Except if you know for certain it's coming – if you were diagnosed with an illness, or were reaching an age where it was becoming more of a reality, your thinking of it would change because it is more concrete. When you talk to someone who is in this situation, you'll find that they often think of it in the same way that you're thinking of the economy. There is an end result that isn't necessarily desirable, but inevitable and now foreseeable. At that point, the focus is on the things that -can- be controlled – relationships with loved ones, material things that will be left behind, plans for care towards the end, etc.

    Barring that situation, though, thinking about it is not problem solving. Thinking about the economy and how it will affect you is. IOW, if you have time to worry about death when it's not imminent, then you're fortunate not to have bigger problems to think about. Or you should get out more. (Sorry for sounding flip – just had to end on a lighter note!)

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