I saw a letter from an Italian doctor, published in a UK newspaper, explaining what was coming to the UK – Coronavirus specifically. One of the things he mentioned was a stronger than usual awareness of mortality, and with it a pressing need to understand the meaning of it all. And this is how it is for most people. While life presents no existential threats we walk around in a daydream and live a life that does not factor in the certain fact of death. We may daydream about all kinds of things – a promotion at work, becoming a billionaire, becoming famous, a new home, new sexual partners, the dream vacation – and so on. These daydreams deal with uncertain pleasures, and yet we spend most of our lives indulging them. The one certainty, namely death, is almost completely ignored. Only when the grim reaper pokes his head round the door and says “Hi” are we shocked back to reality.
Various sages have suggested that some level of awareness of our pending death might be useful – Gurdjieff was quite unambiguous about remembrance of death – it will stop us chasing fantasies, which tend to bring misery anyway, and ground us in reality. This grounding in reality is useful, since it might cause us to initiate a search for meaning, and while “meaning” may not be the thing that is found, we may find other things that show the dream like nature of our existence, and somewhat ironically, diminish our fear of death.
The standard mechanism for dealing with the inevitability of death is denial – focus on absolutely anything, but never your mind rest on the idea of death. This denial produces a neurotic condition and deep unhappiness. We pursue worthless ambitions – fame, money, power – all the time legitimizing these ambitions by denying death. A vivid awareness of one’s mortality will undermine every silly ambition your ego might invent as an attempt to distract itself from the inevitable.
Today we see that millions of people will die from a viral infection. There is widespread fear because the grim reaper has come to say hi, and we don’t know who he will embrace. The cruelty of this situation is that the usual opiates are not so easily available – entertainment, consumerism, travel, despite the fact that this precisely the time people want them. The specter of the grim reaper will always cause people to grab hold of their distractions, but this time the distractions cannot be got. A scant familiarity with death means that many people will struggle with their mental health during this pandemic. Much better to do as the Dalia Lama does – half an hour contemplation of death each day, and fairly soon death becomes less intimidating, and as a side-effect we live a more sane and less stressful life. The mass of people will not of course do this, but for some people the sight of the grim reaper might initiate an attempt to become familiar with him. He’s not so bad – right now, he’s just saying “hi”.