I. Challenging Defenses Against Pain
To be truly alive requires, as an adult, Challenging our childhood defenses against death-pain.
The most important decision you will ever make as an adult is whether to revisit the habit you developed as a child, long before you can now remember, to repress your most painful feelings about your eventual death. Studies show we first learn we will die between the ages of 3 and 8, and develop ways of defending against it. We then carry these defenses automatically into our adult life.
Although most of us would subscribe to the notion that "the unexamined life is not worth living," we rarely reexamine our childhood habit of pushing our pain about death out of our consciousness. It is common to reexamine childhood reactions in every area but death. 20th century psychotherapy, after all, involves surfacing childhood feelings and learning to no longer automatically apply them to our relationships child-rearing, sexuality, work and feelings, and a wide variety of other behaviors. It clearly makes sense to do so about death as well.
The basic fact is this: we did need to defend ourselves against death as children, we do not need to do so as adults. Dening death adults deadens us. Moreover, we do not need to do so. We have the tools to cope with it. We can not only stand our sadness about mortality as adults; we can see it transformed into increased energy, feeling and love for life.
If we dare rethink our childhood habits of denying death, it is useful to identify the specific ways we defend against it. Examples of such key specific defenses include:
-- Avoiding feeling or thinking about death : the most common defense is simply to avoid feeling or thinking about our own death. As discussed elsewhere, this does not mean the thoughts or feelings do not arise. They are simply repressed, eat up our energy and are often acted out in other arenas.
-- The defense of "The Other" : we often use the death of another as unconscious support for the idea that we will not die. This is partly why millions of Americans can look at video of a Terri Schiavo just before death, or turn to "if it bleeds it leads" news portraying death on a daily basis, without consciously experiencing unbearable increases in anxiety about the prospect of their own deaths.
-- Spiritual or religious beliefs not experience : A sophisticated defense is religious or spiritual belief-systems in which adults turn the simplistic beliefs they were taught about as children into more elaborated belief-systems as adults. People may use a belief in heaven or the absence of a "separate self" to support their attempt to deny their pain about their mortality. Such beliefs may be contrasted to the hard-fought spiritual experience in which deeply felt anguish about death serves as a spur to spiritual practice which, over time, leads to experiences of death-transcendence, which are in turn often followed by new experiences of sadness. Those who rarely or never feel anguish about death may well be using religion or spirituality as a defense against it.
-- Cultural worldviews: People use the belief-systems of their society, nation, ethnic group or religion as a defense against death. Although natural, this is a highly dangerous practice which often leads to prejudice and/or violence against those who do not share our cultural worldview. It is a defense which, while reducing overt anxiety in the short-run, ultimately harms our ability to be truly alive because it cuts off our genuine feelings about death and thus our potential to fully experience life.
-- Symbolic immortality projects: People seek immortality through both malign and benign "immortality projects". The former include waging wars to create "Thousand Year Reichs" or murdering millions in the name of one's god. The latter includes writing books, creating works of art, or endowing children's hospitals. In both cases, however, the primary goal is to transcend our creature-death, and may be pursued at the expense of experiencing our full potential for aliveness in this life. Dr. Irvin Yalom claims he never met anyone near death who wished he had written more books, that people usually regret that they had not lived more and better. ( Irvin Yalom Interview, "A Matter Of Life And Death")
If we are to be truly alive, we need to challenge these and the many other ways we defend against our pain about our mortality. Challenging these defenses against death-pain can transform our sense of aliveness, ability to feel, relationships, sexuality, child-rearing, creativity and much else besides.