As my existence travels through time, my subjective reality changes with it. Almost re-inventing, tweaking the aperture of my senses to form a new perspective on the world. Helping me along the way is the incredible knowledge I’m gathering through my counselling studies, client sessions and the observations of life around me. And what is life without the experiences of learning more each day as you exist? I’m glad that I’m not letting all this valuable stuff drift by me. I practice my awareness and attention every day which enriches my life experiences. As Martin Heidegger observed, the experience of life should be authentic, should be experienced as it truly is. By being authentic we can understand our connections to the world, the world of objects and other people. We can easily slip into a life of uninteresting repetativeness, hence well known sayings such as ‘where did all those years go?’
“We have a tendency to let ourselves fall into mediocrity and averageness, living our lives like They do. This fallenness with others makes us inauthentic.”
Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy (1997), p.39.
I read an interesting comment from a recent interview given by the progressive rock musician Steven Wilson which struck a chord with me. He was answering a question relating to the fate of his superb rock group Porcupine Tree. Fans feared that his work on recent solo albums signal the end of the group as a musical outlet for him (PT have been making music since 1993). His answer was this. Would you like to work with the same people in the same job until your retirement? The impression I got from this comment was that he wants the freedom to do other things and make music with other musicians. Which is fair enough. I would concur with him that I feel the same way! I have always got itchy-feet after a certain amount of time in the employment I’ve been involved with. The thought of doing the same thing for 40 odd years is, well, not feel right for me. Other people I worked with seem to be content with the security their jobs brought to them, and quite prepared to be satisfied with this scenario. To me that would be accepting the fate of taking on a belief system that represented a two step hop into the grave. This job would take up a great majority of my life-time, and then, after retirement, death was ’round the corner. I could visualise a future time, with the years gone unnoticed and ordinary, when I would be nearer to death. I needed those years to be eventful, surprising and daring. I wanted uncharted possibilities not mundane safeness. I wanted to feel that death was always a long way off. What was the origin of this preoccupation?
Of course for many, many years I wondered why this bothered me but didn’t get anywhere near an answer until I read Irvin D. Yalom’s excellent book “Existential Psychotherapy” published back in 1980. It is an excellent book and a must for all budding therapists who have a particular leaning towards existentialism and the meaning of life. Yalom states that at some point in our lives we will suffer four existential issues that will bring anxiety; death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness. Half of the book is dedicated to death, an universal anxiety, suffered by all but repressed so deep into our unconscious that we almost believe that death will never happen to us. These defence mechanisms are necessary for good reason. The ultimate truth in life is that death will come, sometime, but we have no way of knowing when this will happen. So why are we not worried about it 24/7? The defence mechanisms are doing a very good job, that’s why! They are there to make sure that we don’t constantly get reminded that we will die one day. So, we worry about other things to help mask this awful realisation.
Then, one day, I was struck by the classic ‘light-bulb’ moment.
I have an annoying, perplexing habit of starting projects and leaving them unfinished. In fact not only projects but also other everyday stuff such as stopping to watch the ending episodes of a TV series, odd jobs around the house etc. Books have been started and never reached the last page. In fact “Existential Psychotherapy” is one of them! Pen and ink drawings are half finished, some going back to the 1990’s. Writing projects with ideas formulated but not honed into works of possible merit. I realised that my employment record follows the same pattern. I could not envisage myself being awarded the dreaded gold watch at the end of a career spanning decades at one company. That future just didn’t seem to fit. But I never was concerned about promotion as such, probably saw it as the first step to being trapped in the same job. I did say trap, didn’t I? Talk about anxiety! Does this mean that money and status is unimportant to me? Yes they are! But it appears my death anxiety is stronger. Whether this job longevity existence naturally happened for others and not me I have no idea. I worked for local government on many ocassions so I could easily have stayed where I was and wait for that gold watch. And I was offered a promotion or two in that time. But I chose to opt for a different path to retirement. I made decisions that on reflection may not be wise. But did I unconsciously engineer my apathy to security and promotion because of my own death anxiety?
What is death anxiety?
Self explanatory really but put simply it consists of fears concerning the possibility of an afterlife, how death occurs and the existential notion of the finality of life; personal extinction(Yalom, p.43). Kierkegaard and May argue that the anxiety over death seeks a fear, creating something out of nothing (Yalom, p.43). Primary death anxiety is rarely identified as it usually hides itself under layers of other anxieties. A brush with death may cause the death anxiety to filter through the many layers of defence mechanisms and materialise briefly to consciousness, but the unconscious soon starts working on repairing this leakage and exchanged what has escaped through as secondary anxieties, such as self esteem issues or relationship problems. An example would be someone finding that they had been burgled, and had confronted the unwelcome guest during the burglary. Later, because of thoughts of what might have happened, such as being attacked or even killed, the person develops anxieties relating to security, over-checking locks and being preoccupied with being burgled again. These new anxieties have become a preoccupation and could lead to further anxieties or even turn to full blown mental disorders (OCD springs to mind).
How did I connect all the evidence? How did I rationalise it as possible death anxiety?
I think that by leaving things unfinished I have convinced my mind that I will have to return to them sometime in the future in order to finish the task. Of course to do so I have to be alive when that time comes. This illusion is protecting me from death; it’s keeping me from the reality that I am growing old and getting closer to the time of my death. Of course the genuine reality is that I will always have the time to do these things, and it is safe to finish what I started because there will be other projects to complete. This illusory misconception has spawned other irrational belief systems. For instance, if I finish all of my projects, what will I do after I have accomplished all that I want to do in life? Can I survive in a future where I have nothing else to do? What I can’t seem to grasp in the present is what will be available for me in the future. Who knows what may develop? Do novelists know what they will be writing about in 10 years time? Of course they don’t!
Another irrational belief, and I’m sure others may recognise, is that whenever something good happens, something bad will follow. This I can vouch has come from my childhood. I do remember having such thoughts that bad luck follows me wherever I go. This even reached and seemed to conspire the fates of people I knew or people connected to my family. In my early youth I noticed that people died around my birthday. Every year I paid particular attention to any news of people expiring in or around January 13th. I never contemplated the notion of coincidence, or that people die every day of the year, or that a lot of people suffered illnesses during the wintertime. I urgently checked with my mother if I was born on a Friday! No, a Sunday. I’m wondering if there is a connection between these belief systems, and whether they were covering up my death anxiety, even at my tender age.
So, if Yalom is correct, then I am really afraid of death but I’ve figured a way to safely keeping it behind powerful defence mechanisms. As long as those things I’ve left remain unfinished or that I don’t pursue a stupendous life I am safe from death. This has been part of my reality for a very long time and my behaviour has been controlled by my death anxiety. I do know that I am uncomfortable with this reality and have been for many years. It is preventing me from fulfilling some destiny that I am afraid to pursue. It’s preventing me from achieving the goals that will always be concepts in my mind deemed never to actually be realised.
“All human beings experience death anxiety, but some experience such excessive amounts of it that it spills into many realms of their experience and results in heightened dysphoria and/or a series of defences against anxiety which constrict growth and often themselves generate secondary anxiety.”
Existential Psychotherapy (1980), p. 207
Learning to drive has been a particular thorn in my conscious reality. I’m convinced that avoiding this is a direct result of my death anxiety. It fits the belief system. Passing the test would increase my life chances and whilst I see it as a future project instead of a present one, I will be safe from death. All this time I have thought that I feared crashing the car and inviting death in this way. Obviously the reasons were much more complex than that. Yalom describes one of his clients of whom I can relate to:
“As the past disappears, so does the coil of the future shorten. Joyce’s husband helped her to freeze time-the future as well as the past. Though she was not conscious of it, it was clear that Joyce was frightened of using up the future. She had a habit, for example, of never quite completing a task: if she were doing housework, she always left one corner of the house uncleaned. She dreaded being ‘finished’”.
Existential Psychotherapy (1980), p. 46-47
This sounds familiar and I could not help but compare the tale with my own experience. I live my life as if time never advances. I try to make each day the same and probably avoid new experiences from which I would enjoy and give my life a healthier meaning. This, I feel, is what I meant earlier by what is uncomfortable. My life slipping away without achieving anything substantial bothers me but I am frozen on the spot and unable to do anything about it. I feel guilty because I do not act towards fulfilling any satisfied destiny. It sounds to me as an example of existential guilt. I am afraid to live, essentially, by the fear of death, from which I am trying to protect myself from by trying to existentially freeze time. I am stuck as if in a time warp, unable to fulfil my destiny, because any attempt to do so will invite death closer. The end result is nothing gets achieved, or at best very slow progress towards it.
I have a burning desire to leave a mark on this world but not sure what it will be, or how to achieve it without fear. My children are one such legacy of which I am proud to have been a part of, but I feel I need to leave something creative. I have felt the dread of time running out, just as Joyce did, but for some reason it doesn’t make me get on with finishing things. I am fooled to believe that I have all the time in the world but the reality is that I don’t. Am I so deluded that I think I will live forever that I have an unlimited time? Am I experiencing the specialness that both Heidegger and Yalom wrote about.
“The belief in personal specialness is extraordinarily adaptive and permits us to emerge from nature and to tolerate the accompanying dysphoria…Our belief in exemption from natural law underlies many aspects of our behaviour. It enhances courage in that it permits us to encounter danger without being overwhelmed by the threat of personal extinction.”
Existential Psychotherapy (1980), p.121
“The key to becoming authentic is to face our own death and with it our own limitations. In the process of opening ourselves to this reality we find ourselves most truly.”
Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy (1997), p.39.
Whereas Yalom describes specialness in terms of a comforting irrational belief in immortality or the ultimate rescuer, Heidegger referred to human beings being able to face death as enabling a person to live life authentically. Becoming your unique self and realise that this is possible with only the dimensions of a mortal body is a way of overcoming the struggle it is to be human.
Now that I’ve identified my death anxiety I hope I can confront and accept the harrowing truth that I will die one day. I have to measure my life as a finite entity and use that time to complete what I set out to do. I have to believe that I will find a way to finish what I start and then hope that I can find further projects for me to fill whatever time I have left. I have come to see the world as a place of endless possibilities as long as I keep my mind open in order to find everything that I want to seek and do. Most of all I have to find the courage to live, to be not afraid of what might be, and to be more afraid of unfinished legacies. I must grasp the responsibility that comes with this courage and not fear rejection or the truth of failure.
Yalom, Irvin D. ‘Existential Psychotherapy, (1980) Basic Books.
Deurzen, Emmy van, ‘Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy’ (1997) Routledge.