“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” – Ernest Becker.
Here is the cold, hard reality – we all die. Each of us are reminded of this fact on a daily basis – we lose a job, a relationship ends, a child leaves home, a friend betrays us, a long-time pet is put to sleep, a parent dies, we witness or experience a traumatic event, or our favorite sports team loses a game. Nature reminds us of the limitedness of life as we move from summer through fall into winter. At the same time many of us test our mortality, wanting to prove that we are ten feet tall and bullet proof – we drive too fast, we skydive, we use nicotine, we play an extreme sport, we dive from a high cliff into the churning waters of a lake or river below, we bungee jump from a balcony or bridge, we ride a dangerous river rapids, or run with bulls. We try some or all of these to convince ourselves that the rush of adrenaline we experience is demonstrable proof that we are exempt from dying, substantiating that the law of finality does not apply to us.
Still others, in a denial or avoidance of his or her demise, turn to religious beliefs or spiritual practices. Some hold onto a life hereafter, or focus on a previous life in some form. Some expend tremendous energy in creating a reputation or legacy that will in some way carry him or her beyond the throws of death and to live on in infamy. Others talk about those who have died as though they have simply moved onto another state or county. Yet others escape the inevitability of life’s end with self-medication or delusion. But the harsh reality remains – we all are going to die.
As existential therapists, how do we confront this issue of finiteness with our clients? Many of those who enter our therapeutic space do so fearing the end. He or she comes into our space terrorized that her or his life is coming to end, that her or his life has no meaning or purpose any longer. Do we diminish the fear by simply reassuring them they will be “okay” or that “things will work out”, or do we join with them to struggle with their terror of the reality that life will never be the same? Do we engage with them in their fear of what is, or do we over-simplify the struggle as a way of protecting ourselves, and our client, from the painstaking task of dealing with the panic that finality brings in the midst of living?
The core of existential angst is our anxiety over death. The late-twentieth century philosopher, Dirty Harry Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations?” (Dirty Harry wasn’t much into gender inclusiveness.) As an individual and a therapist, how have we dealt with the reality of our limitedness? How you or I view our finitude significantly influences how we work with our clients. If we believe, as the song “Fame” implies, “we’re gonna’ live forever, I’m gonna’ learn how to fly,” how does that impact our connection with the client who struggles with his or her sexual orientation? If we believe that our dying is simply moving onto the “sweet by and by”, how does that influence our relationship with the client overcome with grief from the loss of a son or daughter in war
To the length and depth we have explored our own perceptions and experiences of death; our ability to assist another in her or his confrontation with mortality is severely limited. Much of our culture, as well as parts of psychology, perceive the reflection on death as morbid and insignificant. Instead, our culture and our training, tells us to focus on hope and possibility. The problem with this thinking is that an individual cannot offer or hold hope for another, until that individual has stared into the great abyss of death and acknowledged the finitude of his or her existence.
The insight and perspective we gain from sitting with our own existential angst concerning our death enables and empowers us to sit with the anxiety of our client concerning his or her limitations in life and relationships. Such reflecting on death does not mean creating a ‘bucket list’ of that which we wish to accomplish before our passing. It does not mean writing our epitaph or how we will be described upon our passing. To meditate on our perceptions and experience of death is to sit with the lack of existence. To sit with the idea that no one will remember our dying. To sit with our finitude is to embrace the thought that maybe there will be no celebrations of our life, no memorials of our sacrifice or contributions to others. To confront our dying is to focus on the current moment, the here and the now.
To confront our finality is to focus on another, to know them and connect with them right here and right now. It is being present with our client in this moment. It is taking in the current situation with all of our senses, not just observing but allowing ourselves to experience the situation to the fullest extent. The reality is that you and I are going to die . . . today, tomorrow, next week, . . . sometime. The more we come to know the reality of our dying, the more we come to know depth of the current moment.
— Steve Fehl