Boris: Nothingness… non-existence… black emptiness…
Sonja: What did you say?
Boris: Oh, I was just planning my future.
Woody Allen, Love and Death
Just when I thought I was done with reflecting upon the impact of my mother’s passing last year, Oliver Burkeman’s “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” gave me a ton of material on the life-infusing properties of death to mull over.
And while death is always present in the news all over the world, the book arrived to me at a moment when two particular news stories about death felt particularly close:
Last week, here in Buenos Aires, prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s body was found in his apartment, triggering a political crisis of gigantic proportions.
Two days later, AK Canserbero, a rapper from Venezuela whose work I had just discovered and encouraged me to look further into the emerging hip-hop wave of my native country, jumped from the 10th floor of a building after stabbing his friend and manager, Carlos Molnar, to death.
The book draws from cognitive psychology to classical philosophy and literature to demolish the foundations of the positive-thinking cult that underpins the modern self-help industry. And to top it all off, Burkeman does this with great storytelling and generous doses of stark British humor.
To illustrate the futility of positive thinking, Burkeman reminds us of the perennial challenge proposed by Fyodor Dostoevsky in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
After several years reporting on the field of psychology as a journalist, it dawned on Burkeman that what united the psychologists, philosophers, and even the occasional self-help guru whose ideas seemed to hold water, was the realization that the Dostoevskian polar-bear challenge was a great metaphor for what’s wrong with most of the popular recepies for happiness.
For example, the work carried out in the field of ironic process theory shows that our uniquely human capacity for “metacognition,” for thinking about thinking, if abused, short-circuits in peculiar ways:
When you try not think of a white bear, you may experience some success in forcing alternative thoughts into your mind. At the same time, though, a metacognitive monitoring process will crank into action, to scan your mind for evidence of whether you are succeeding or failing at the task. And this is where things get perilous, because if you try too hard… [t]he monitoring process will start to occupy more than its fair share of limelight on the cognitive stage… suddenly, all you will be able to think about is white bears, and how badly you’re doing at not thinking about them.
There is a good deal of evidence that this is very similar to the process that frustrates most of our efforts to feel positive:
[Havard University’s Daniel] Wegner’s research, and that of others, has turned up more and more evidence to support that notion. One example: when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic dissorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts ran faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly “relaxing” content… people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those not instructed to supress those thoughts.
From this perspective, most of the self-help industry’s favorite techniques for achieving happiness and success, like positive thinking or visualizing goals, suffer from an irremediable flaw. And Burkeman proposes instead to embrace the work of thinkers who promote an alternative, “negative path” to happiness that encourages us to be willing to experience more negative emotions, or at least to stop running so hard from them.
Besides recent work in cognitive psychology,
You’ll find [this view] in the works of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, who emphasised the benefits of always contemplating how badly things might go. It lies deep near the core of Buddhism, which counsels that true security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity… the same “negative” approach to happiness also helps explain why so many people find mindfulness meditation so beneficial, why a new generation of business thinkers are advising companies to drop their obsession with goalsetting and embrace uncertainty instead…
The word “negative” here doesn’t necessarily refer to unpleasant experiences and emotions: “…some philosophies of happiness are best described as ‘negative’ because they involve developing skills of ‘not doing‘ — of learning not to chase positive feelings so aggressively.”
But there is a thought that our minds are exceptionally successful at suppressing: that of our own mortality.
The more you reflect on this, the stranger it seems. We are perfectly capable of feeling acute self-pitty about more minor predicaments, at home or at work, on a daily basis. Yet the biggest predicament of all goes by, for the most part, not consciously worried about. ‘At bottom,’ wrote Freud — sweepengly, as usual, but in this case persuasively — ‘no one believes his own death.’
Burkeman cites Ernest Becker’s magnum opus, The Denial of Death (definitely on my list of books to read in 2015) as containing one of the most persuasive explanations of this remarkable capacity of our minds:
The lack of serious thought we give to mortality, for Becker, is no accident or oversight: it is precisely because death is so terrifying and significant, he argues, that we don’t think about it… but the consequence is that we dedicate our lives to suppressing that fear, erecting vast psychological fortifications so that we can avoid confronting it.
In Becker’s view, a huge amount of human activity is “designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”
The main reason we manage to deny our mortality to such an extent, Becker explains, is our capacity for constructing a symbolic self that coexists in our minds with the perception of ourselves as physical beings:
And while it is inevitable that the physical self will perish, the symbolic self — the one that exists in our minds — is quite capable of convincing itself that it is immortal… in Becker’s view, all religions, all political movements and national identities, all business ventures, all charitable activity and all artistic pursuits are nothing but ‘immortality projects.’
Deep down, we see ourselves as immortal heroes. From this perspective, even the most recalcitrant atheist depends on a notion of the afterlife. For Becker, failing do so results in mental illness: the main cause of depression is some people’s failure to shield themselves from the truth that they are not cosmically significant heroes.
Furthermore, immortality projects are a great creative force that allows for “great architecture, great literature, great acts of philanthropy, great civilisations,”
…but in Becker’s view they are simultaneously the cause of the worst things, too… War represents the ultimate clashing of rival immortality projects: if my sense of immortality relies on my nation’s triumph, and yours upon yours, we’ll fight longer and harder than if we were seeking only territory or power… philosopher Sam Keen, paraphrasing Becker, [says that human conflicts] “are life-and-death struggles — my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project.” In other words, we will fight so hard to preserve our symbolic immortality that we will sacrifice our physical lives.
Luckily, there is a way to exorcize ourselves from our deep-rooted death-denial mechanisms without falling into an abyss of depressive existential despair.
According to Burkeman, the very first step in this direction is embracing the teachings of Epicurus and realizing that there there is no need to fantasize that life continues beyond death:
“Death is nothing to us,” [Epicurus] says, “since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”… Death spells the end of the experiencing subject, and thus the end of any capacity for experiencing the state we fear. Or as Einstein put it: “The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there’s no risk of accident to one who’s dead.”
However, necessary as it is, Burkeman thinks the Epicurean maxim is not sufficient:
No matter how persuasive you find Epicurus’s arguments against fearing death, it doesn’t follow that death is not bad… coming to understand death as something that there is no reason to fear, yet which is still bad because of what it brings to and end, might be the ideal middle path. The argument is a thoroughly down-to-earth, pragmatic, and Stoic one: the more that you remain aware of life’s finitude, the more you will cherish it, and the less likely you will be to fritter it away on distractions.
For building the habit of remembering our mortality and thus strengthening our capacity to focus on meaning, Burkeman recommends a simple exercise suggested by psychologist Russ Harris:
[I]magine you are eighty years old — assuming you are not eighty already, that is; if you are, you’ll have to pick an older age — and then complete the sentences “I wish I’d spent more time on … “, and “I wish I’d spend less time on … “. This turns out to be a surprisingly effective way to achieve mortality awareness in short order… it is precisely through such mundane and unassuming rituals that we can best hope to enfold an awareness of death into the daily rhythms of life, and achieve something of Epicurus’s calm rationality in the face of mortality.
Burkeman also reminds us that the relationship of the Western world to the concept of mortality wasn’t always as unhealthy as it is nowadays:
[In ancient Rome], according to legend, generals who had been victorious in battles would instruct a slave to follow behind as they paraded through the streets; the slave’s task was to keep repeating, for the general’s benefit, a warning against hubris: memento mori, “remember you shall die.” … The specific motivation for contempalting mortality differed from era to era, and culture to culture. In the ancient world, it had much to do with remembering to savour life as if it were a delicious meal… for later Christians it was often more a case of remembering to behave well in anticipation of the final judgement.
But traditional rituals for reconciling life and death are still alive in the 21st century, and Burkeman sees the Mexican Day of the Dead as one of the most powerful ones. As part of his research for the book he visited the Mexican village of San Gregorio Atlapulco during the celebration of the holiday:
The Day of the Dead is not an effort to remake something horrifying as something unproblematic; it is, precisely, a rejection of such binary categories. What was happening in the cementery was memento mori at its most powerful – a ritual that neither repressed thoughts of death, nor sought, in the manner of American or British Hallowe’en, to render it saccharine and harmless. It was about letting death seep back into life.
And you can tell the Day of the Dead had a strong impact on Burkeman because his writing shines the most when he elaborates on his first-hand experience of it:
The strains of the mariachi band drifted over from the other side of the cemetery. I looked out over it, strewn with marigolds and crowded with huddled figures. Beyond its edges, no lights illuminated the blackness, but inside, the fires and the hundreds of clickering candles lent the night a kind of cosiness, despite the chill. The musicians carried on playing. Death was in the air, and all was well.