Is the denial of our mortality the root cause of all our maladies?


I deal with suffering, dying and death almost on a daily basis.

On my ward rounds with my students at the hospital, I always think to myself or ask my students if the suffering or premature death of this or that particular patient could have been prevented.

I have alcoholics being re-admitted over and over again with fits and other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and I have patients with diabetes and hypertension being re-admitted over and over again for their severely uncontrolled conditions.

And when I go on to explain in graphic details to the patients the consequences and the real and present danger of imminent death if their condition is not monitored and controlled, this does not seem to make an iota of difference in motivating them to change their less than healthy lifestyles. What I have learnt is that by mentioning the word “DEATH” to them creates a mental block of sorts that prevents them from coming to grips with their condition and taking control of their lives.

Having read Professor John McMurtry’s book on ‘The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure,’ I have learnt that all of our social constructs, covenants, and contracts are life-blind! He has graphically and convincingly shown that we have, without pause, undermined the fundamental bases of our livelihood – the life-supporting and enabling networks within our bodies and minds, and by extension that of our communities and our planet. And to make things even worse, we show no signs of slowing down as we steam ahead on our collective suicidal pact.

Although this has and continues to boggle my mind, as I had assumed that the elders of our community, both past and present, would have put our life-capital first and foremost in all their deliberations, I am left wondering if our life-blind attitude may be a symptom of a much deeper pathology, and if this deeper pathology is the denial of our mortality.

Could it be that all of our “irrational” theories and worldviews that undermine our life-capital can be “rationalized” by our desperate attempt to achieve immortality? Could it be that all of our cosmologies, religions, and our scientific, economic and political theories are all, as yet unrecognized, our collective subconscious attempt to escape the reality and certainty of death?

Why do religions have dogmas and doctrines of reincarnation, resurrection and the afterlife? Why do science leave us with the impression that technology and innovation will always be our saviour? Why is so much money being invested in stem cell technology, genetic engineering and regenerative medicine? Is it possible that our meta-narratives operationalised in all of our political and economic fictions serve to blind us to the inevitable clutches of death?

In the paper, “Rationality and Scientific Method: Paradigm Shift in an Age of Collapse” (2009), Interchange, 40:1, 69-91, Professor John McMurtry reveals the unrecognized meta-program of “rationality.” This meta-program which underpins all of our social constructs have five “distinct steps set of controlling assumptions which are not distinguished or justified:”

“(i) self-maximizing strategies in (ii) conditions of scarcity or conflict over (iii) desired payoffs at (iv) minimum costs for the self to (v) succeed or win.”

If one’s life is the ultimate scarce resource for one’s being, isn’t our conflict with our mortality, the root cause of all our self-maximising strategies? Also, isn’t the desired payoff our individual immortality, and the minimum cost to the self our self-delusion or repression of the certainty of our mortality?

For me at least, it is only in this light, that our life-blind strategies can be rationalised, and in a perverse sort of way, we can begin to make sense of all the nonsense. It is this unrecognized denial of our mortality that decouples death from the life-cycles. We become life-blind in our misguided and maladaptive attempt to deny our death.

So where do we go from here? How does this help us to get our life-bearings back and become more life-enabling and less life-disabling?

We have to first accept the inconvenient truth that we are all born to die. The Dalai Lami once said that when he awakens in the morning, he always meditates on his death. Once we come to accept the fragility and transience of all life and the certainty of our death, we will more easily take less for granted the breath of life that has been gifted to us. Our attachments to our fears and desires will disappear and we will be able to actualise our potentials and live our lives in the moment to the fullest.

Our life’s purpose of stewardship of all of our life capital will become evidently clear, irrespective of the time and space in which we find ourselves. It would be cultivated by an infinite sense of gratitude for all life-capital past, an infinite sense of responsibility for all life-capital future, and an infinite sense of service to all life-capital present.

We would then be comforted by the fact that although we must die, what would live on is the positive life-enabling influences we would have had in our spheres of influence and concern and the wider world, as our “joie de vivre” lives on in the minds and hearts and souls and spirits of those who we leave behind, and in those who are yet to come.

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