Everyone who’s alive now – you, your friends, your family – one day won’t be. It’s an unavoidable fact, and yet we often go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging it. Jules Howard explains why that might be a mistake.
According to data from the company Statista, just 11 per cent of us consider death in our daily lives. Most of us are clearly busy with the subject of life, perhaps only considering the subject three or four times a year.
We in the West are, in the words of social psychologist Sheldon Solomon, masters of “burying existential anxieties under a mound of French fries”. But that’s understandable, right? Death is horrible. We live. We die. And then it ends. What possible reason could there be for thinking about death more? Plus, French fries are delicious.
According to some scientists, however, there are advantages to thinking about death more. Psychologists, in particular, point to a number of studies that suggest that thinking about death (‘mortality salience’) can raise people’s self-worth, encourage them to be less money-orientated and even make them funnier. Buoyed by research like this there are social movements, such as so-called Death Cafés and the Death Salon collective, that provide space for people to meet and talk openly about death.
In many ways, groups like these mirror Eastern philosophies, which have urged people to consider death and the frailty of human existence, for centuries.
Buddha, for instance, was an advocator of ‘corpse meditation’ where dead bodies are observed in various states of decay. “This body, too,” one text states… “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
And the very notion of ‘yin and yang’ – the dualistic idea of ‘light and dark’ and ‘fire and water’ and ‘life and death’ – appears to inspire in non-Western audiences a greater appreciation of everyday things than in Western audiences.
So, are we in the West thinking about death wrong? I would argue, no. Because there’s no ‘wrong’ way to do it.
But we could certainly do with thinking about it more. Not loads more, just as much as each of us feels is right. In so doing, our perspective on day-to-day events might be imperceptibly improved. After all, to those of us that know that life is impermanent, the French fries have never tasted so good.