Preparing for death

by Brian on March 29, 2020

in Cancer,Health,In the News,Science

OK, that headline is a bit of a red herring. I’m not dying now nor am I planning to any time soon. But ever since I was diagnosed with an incurable, albeit mostly treatable cancer, one that compromises my immune system and puts me in the most at risk category during the current coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been thinking about death a lot. 

Preparing for coronavirus in Jerusalem

When the time comes, I want to be prepared – mentally at least (there may not be a whole lot I can do about it physically).

That turns out to be a challenge. Research last year from Bar-Ilan University in Israel claims that our brains may be hard-wired from childhood to shield us from thinking about our own deaths. 

Call it the “mortality paradox” – we all know we’re going to die someday, but our brains are not able to fully grasp the concept of no longer being alive.

“We cannot rationally deny that we will die,” the study’s leader, Yair Dor-Ziderman, says. So instead, “we think of it more as something that happens to other people. When the brain gets information that links the self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it.”

The Bar-Ilan researchers developed a test where they monitored participants’ brain activity while showing them photographs of themselves as well as pictures of strangers. They did this several times in succession. Half the photos were accompanied by words relating to death. The other half had no such connotation. 

The participants were then shown an entirely new face, which the brain would normally react to with a signal of “surprise,” since the image clashed with what the brain “predicted” from the previous sequence.

However, when death-related words appeared alongside the participants’ own faces, their prediction systems essentially shut down, registering no surprise when the “new” face appeared. 

This dulling of the brain’s predictive function, the researchers posit, demonstrates the mind’s inability to process the idea of our own deaths.

Such an incapacity to imagine a world in which we no longer exist, despite knowing that our deaths are inevitable, has led human beings to develop a number of imaginative narratives where death is not what it seems. 

In his 2012 book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, philosopher Stephen Cave describes four main coping strategies we mortals – the “aspiring undying” – have cooked up to deal with the mortality paradox.

The first path Cave calls simply “staying alive.”

“Almost all cultures contain legends of sages, golden-age heroes or remote peasants who discovered the secret to defeating aging and death,” Cave writes. 

Since no one has ever found this long sought-after magical “elixir of life,” a second strategy has evolved. 

The “resurrection narrative” is the belief that “although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.” In addition to the clear Biblical allusions, we see this reflected in the modern-day concept of cryonics, in which people pay to be frozen upon their death in the hope of one day being “repaired.” 

A third path, Cave writes, is “surviving as some kind of spiritual entity or soul,” where we give up “on this earthly frame and believe in a future consisting of some more spiritual stuff.” This is where the concept of an afterlife, a heaven or olam haba (”next world” in Hebrew) finds its most evocative expression.

The fourth and final path is “legacy,” where we achieve life after death through our creative works or the influence we have on the world even after we’re gone. 

“The Greeks believed that culture had a permanence and solidity that biology lacked,” Cave writes. “Eternal life therefore belonged to the hero who could stake a place for himself in the cultural realm.” 

From the view of science, our genes, as continued through our children, are both a legacy and a kind of immortality, since DNA represents “a traceable line to the very beginnings of life and, if we are lucky, [one that] will also continue into the distant future,” Cave says.

Cave’s four paths are intellectually engaging, to be sure, but they haven’t really helped me all that much in getting comfortable around my future non-existence.

That’s because my biggest fear about death may be a much more familiar one: Fear of Missing Out. FOMO “is very often at the heart of people’s fear of being dead,” says Dr. BJ Miller, a palliative care physician at the University of California, San Francisco Cancer Center and the co-author of the book A Beginner’s Guide to the End.

When it comes to death, FOMO is about “all the things you’re not going to get to see,” Miller said on an episode of the NPR program Fresh Air, and “the idea that the world’s going to continue on without you.”

But FOMO around death can be turned on itself, Miller continues. It points us “very squarely towards all the things we love and care about. And then that becomes a nice compass for our way forward – how we’re going to live until we die.” The things we’re afraid we’re going to miss out on are exactly where “we should uptick in terms of our attention now.”

That won’t necessarily help us break past the mortality paradox. And it’s little hard to do all the things you love when you’re in an extended COVID-19 lockdown. But it’s a clever reframing that provides some small comfort when facing the ineffable. 

I first began my preparations for death at The Jerusalem Post.

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