Existentialism: Death and Isolation
Author’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series examining fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective. In what follows we begin to review the existentialist motifs that Irvin Yalom discusses in his Existential Psychotherapy. This post examines death and isolation.
Death - Yalom writes:
“It is one of life’s most self-evident truths that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must live, nonetheless, in the face of the fading, in the face of fear.” (p. 30).
Existentialists often speak of this in terms of “finitude.” Finitude means an awareness that we are vulnerable creatures, with limited abilities and power to shape the world, and that we are subject to the passing of time and the loss that it brings – including, ultimately, death. Thus, it follows that grief is an intrinsic part of life – and the sweeter the living, the deeper the grief at its inevitable passing. The term “finitude” also includes death anxiety proper: a bedrock awareness that I, myself, and all those I care about, and all the things that matter to me, will not last forever. My life, all my cares, all my projects will eventually cease.
Yalom suggest we are all intrinsically aware of our finitude, though it is frightening and we often push it aside. Nevertheless, he says, there are “hints” of death that pervade our experience, if we allow ourselves to see them; they are encountered all throughout our lives. When a toddler first learns to feed herself with a spoon, and thus no longer needs to be fed, the toddler’s parent may feel a twinge of sadness at the inevitable passing of time: a phase of his child’s life has passed and will never come again. When that same parent realizes the there are some pains in life he can never shield his children from, despite his overwhelming love for them, he encounters his own limitation, his own finitude. Life itself, if we allow it, makes us aware of death. This means, conversely – and crucially for our purposes – that if one is frightened enough of death to try to keep that death-awareness from consciousness, one must, in a way, avoid life itself.
And this is exactly what fundamentalist Christianity does, I suggest. It teaches, quite explicitly, that we do not die. If we are Christians, we go to experience eternal bliss with God. The victory over death is deeply embedded in their theology. Here, then, are those “solutions” to this problem of death, mentioned in part II: fundamentalist Christians believe and tell themselves that they are Special (they are the elect, and they alone will live in Heaven) and will be Rescued from death through faith in Jesus. The most basic of human fears has thereby been fully conquered. There is not even any disguise or duplicity here; Christians are quite unabashed in teaching that their religion is the only one that has the “answer” to death. Indeed, they generally trumpet it as an unrivaled advantage of their system.
But if the existentialists are right, this is a Pyrrhic victory, because death is not a problem; it is the very key to truly living life. Awareness of our finitude, Yalom argues, is absolutely critical to our full appreciation of and immersion in life. An awareness of death actually saves us. How? Because knowing that we will one day die injects an intensity, and poignancy, a sweetness, and even an urgency into life that cannot be had any other way. It makes us realize that we must live now, that life cannot be indefinitely postponed. It makes us realize that life must be appreciated now, tasted in its fullness and drunk deeply of now, because it may not last. Awareness of death makes plain what is truly important in life, and what is not; in Yalom’s phrase, it “trivializes the trivial.” And it can embolden us by teaching us that we can face our worst fears and emerge strengthened.
Thus, by letting go of the fantasy that death can somehow be beaten, cheated, or deferred, then those fantasies can no longer siphon off our energies, and we can appreciate the here-and-now that we do have. In relinquishing an idealized future, we can immerse ourselves in a real present. Awareness of the reality of death saves us because it teaches us to appreciate life.
Isolation – We are ultimately alone, the existentialists taught. What does that mean? Yalom explains:
“To the extent that one is responsible for one’s life, one is alone. Responsibility implies authorship; to be aware of one’s authorship means to forsake the belief that there is another who creates and guards one.” (p. 357)
Thus, though we may have friends, though we may have deeply intimate relationships, even the most intimate of relationships can only be so close. There is an “unbridgeable gulf” between me and every other person. No one can, essentially, get inside my own skull, except me. In the end, we each die alone. No one can die with us or for us. That’s what it means to be alone.
This is a source of anxiety, writes Yalom, because it makes us feel lonely (of course) as well as helpless and frightened – overwhelmed at the responsibility of being one’s own parent, and of having no savior. To be truly aware that no one is out there to take care of me is a deeply frightening realization. But, Yalom insists, it must be done, it must be borne, to some degree at least, “resolutely.” Why? Because there is a steep cost involved in not doing so. If we do not have a savior and cannot tolerate the loneliness, we will very often look for one – someone to save us from our loneliness. We will often try to use those around us to assuage our fears, rather than enjoying intimacy with them for who they are. But that is a hopeless task, because it can’t be done – no one can, in fact, save us from our aloneness. Thus we miss out on what intimacy is possible in the desperate pursuit of an illusion, of what isn’t possible.
“If we fail to develop the inner strength, the sense of personal worth and firm identity that enables us to face existential isolation, to say ‘so be it,’ and to take anxiety into ourselves, then we will struggle in oblique ways to find safety.” (p. 373-374)
That “safety” can be found in many ways, which Yalom goes on to develop, but among them, for our purposes, is conformity to a group. It is the attempt to assuage one’s isolation anxiety by submerging the self in the larger identity of a Special group, a group destined to be Rescued: for our example, fundamentalist Christians.
This can have far reaching consequences. Fundamentalist Christians trade in their self for a solid group identity, and thereby try to avoid the terror of isolation. But as with everything, there is a price to be paid for this. Isolation, after all, is the result of individuation, of becoming yourself, of standing out. To trade this in for group identity is to lose yourself. If you doubt this, ask yourself: were you really able to be yourself, fully and unreservedly, when you were a fundamentalist? Did you not find that there were many aspects of yourself (perhaps you are still discovering them!) that were simply denied their right to be, by the group, and thus had to be shoved aside? Many deconverts report that we only truly found out who we were once we left the faith, and here’s why: our relationship with the group was characterized by need. We needed the comfort of conformity to avoid feeling alone, and we were willing to trade away part of ourselves to get it.
So here, again, we find the same theme: only by letting go of what isn’t and cannot be, are we free to appreciate what is. Facing the hard truths about life as a human subject is our salvation.
Next time, we will continue our examination of existentialist by looking at the concept of responsibility.