The Scary Unknown

Human beings come well-equipped with a fear response. It exists for good reason, but somehow we’ve let it run away with us. Not just individually, but collectively. And most of us live from collective fear without even recognizing that’s what we’re doing.

Cultural stories… 

The meta-narratives, the big stories of a culture, are pervasive and powerful. I first became aware of this while teaching college students about consumer issues. In Western culture, there is an ingrained story that more is better, bigger is best, and it’s our duty to spend profusely in order to keep the economy going. Underlying this story is fear—fear of not having enough, not doing enough, not being good enough.

The unknown is also fear-inducing, and therefore becomes the basis of other meta-narratives. Dying falls in the category of a scary unknown, and collective anxiety about death lurks around people of all ages in Western culture. It doesn’t help that most of our impressions about dying come from movies and tv dramas, which by their nature emphasize drama in their presentation.

Our collective death phobia has caused us to sanitize the experience, keep our distance as much as possible, and attempt to postpone the inevitable by every means available.

Irrational and unconstructive desires and decisions are a consequence of acting from fear.  We aim for quantity of life rather than quality. Doctors often have to deal with adult children pleading that a dying parent be given further chemo, attached to life support tubes and pumps, or be resussicitated—even when the dying parent is clearly ready to go and trying to disembody.

Curiosity instead of fear…

Some things are truly unknowable, but much of what we fear is simply not yet known to us.

One way to deal with fear is to learn the truth of the matter, to explore and learn in a neutral way. This might be through direct experience (thought not so much when it comes to dying!) Sometimes we learn from others who have studied the matter or experienced it themselves.

In the case of death as a scary unknown, we have two good sources of insight. One is doctors and nurses who work with dying people in the medical specialty known as palliative care. The second is individuals who have gone nearly all the  way though the dying process but not taken the final step. Near-death experiences (NDEs) have now been well studied. Below you’ll find a link to an excellent documentary.

And right here I’m including a not-to-be-missed TED talk by Kathryn Mannix, a highly acclaimed palliative care doctor who has cared for thousands of dying people during her long career.

Facing the not-yet-known…

When you face a not-yet-known event, it helps a lot to know what to expect as you move through it. When you’re mentally and emotionally prepared, you don’t over-react. And when you remain calm and composed, the experience goes more smoothly from an energy perspective.

Many have found that watching this video made the prospect of death less scary. I hope you did too.

Information is helpful but…

Understanding how things really work goes a long way to allaying your fears, but there’s another aspect  to deal with—the effect of the meta-narrative on your psyche.

Because cultural  stories are so pervasive and compelling, we frequently take them on as our own without realizing it.

This is important to know—the power of the meta-narrative— so you can discern which fears are yours and which you have taken on from the collective consciousness. Once you’ve discerned what is not yours, you can send it back.

Return to sender…

You are in charge of what you keep in  your energy field. What follows is a simple way to discover unwanted thoughts or beliefs and remove them from your field.

  1. Pay attention to things that come up in daily life. If you notice, for example, that you’re preoccupied with a particular thought, or obsessively worrying about something, or avoiding thinking about something…you are on the track to discovering a belief you might want to explore.
  2. Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet space, eyes closed, and take a few slow breaths. Have a sense of settling deep into the core of your being.
  3. Consider the thought in question from the perspective of where it came from. It’s as simple as asking Is this mine?
  4. Listen for an answer. People have many different ways of communicating in their inner world. For me, I feel it in my bones; I just know if the answer is yes or no. Some people see clear images. I have never seen an image yet but I get impressions. I can’t really describe them but they give me information. Some people hear things. You may have another way. Or you may not have had any of this sort of communication yet. The good news is, it’s an exploration and we all become more skillful with time and practice.
  5. Return to sender. Once you have discovered a thought that you adopted from an external source, you are entitled to return it if you no longer want it. It’s as simple as declaring: Return to sender. Some people prefer to say: Return to sender with love.
  6. Thereafter, remember it is no longer part of your operating system. Humans are easily habituated, so it may take a bit of conscious effort to prevent reacting in old ways, even if the belief is no longer there. The good news is, you can do it if you want to.


Rethinking Death: Exploring What Happens When We Die 

In Rethinking Death, scientists, physicians, and survivors of cardiac arrest explore the liminal space between life, death and beyond, breaking down these stunning scientific breakthroughs to tell the remarkable, scientific story of what happens after we die.

New York University Grossman School of Medicine

Laughter Yoga—A New Frontier in Wellness

These times are too serious to lose our sense of humour.

So…it’s a good idea to have some strategies and tools to keep ourselves laughing. And especially so for those of us in the northern hemisphere where days are getting shorter and colder as winter closes in.

Why laugh when life isn’t funny?

Good question. Why would anyone want to laugh—when life continues to fall apart around us in the midst of a pandemic and colder weather is keeping us indoors even more? Here’s what Norman Cousins said many years ago…

Continue reading

We are going to transform. Period.

I haven’t written about death since the coronavirus descended upon us. Yet death is relevant in several ways right now. Not just that death is the possible outcome for a few of the people who contract COVID-19. Not just that death hovers closer in our awareness than ever before. But also because death is part of transformation. Think back to the caterpillar—it must completely disintegrate in order to provide the necessary material for a butterfly to come to life.

Continue reading

Changing Our Minds About Aging

***  Time for this post? Reading… 5 minutes. Listening… 28 minutes. 

In North America, we have a bad impression of aging. Most of us would like to avoid it. Since that isn’t possible, we tend to ignore the subject as much as we can.

And really, who would want to get old, considering that the cultural messages are largely disparaging and dismissive. We are generally seen as failing adults, rather than people with something to contribute.

Where can we find a better vision of aging?

I was inspired by an interview I heard a few days ago on CBC’s “Tapestry.” Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc Agronin has written a book which is invites us to stop thinking of aging as an “implacable enemy and start seeing it as a developmental force for enhancing well-being, meaning, and longevity.” A summary of The End of Old Age goes on to say:

the focus is squarely on: “So what does this mean for me and my family?” In the final part of the book, Dr. Agronin provides simple but revealing charts that you can fill out to identify, develop, and optimize your unique age-given strengths.

It’s nothing short of an action plan to help you age better by improving how you value the aging process, guide yourself through stress, and find ways to creatively address change for the best possible experience and outcome.

Dr. Agronin is an expert in Alzheimer’s disease and other geriatric mental health issues, and runs both a memory center and one of Florida’s largest Alzheimer’s clinical research programs. He is the author of nine books and hundreds of articles, has been published in the New York Times, and writes regular blogs on aging and retirement issues for the Wall Street Journal.

In the interview, he said that if we celebrated when people enter older stages of life, there would be a really profound shift in the way society thinks about aging. Instead of dreading it, we would look forward to it.

Dr. Agronin has plenty of experience with older people since his average patient is 90 years of age. He does not deny the challenges they face. But I was struck by how he’s able to both acknowledge the downsides of aging and yet still see that aging has the potential to be about growth, change, and even strength.

Age-given strengths…

Strength is not something we typically associate with aging. I think that’s because we have a narrow view that defines strength as only physical robustness. Yet, Dr. Agronin says he has seen people who are both frail and vital at the same time.  Their strength, he says, is in their wisdom, purpose, and creativity—qualities that grow and deepen with age.

For a longer presentation that develops Dr. Agronin’s ideas about the five aspects of wisdom, among other things, go here.

There’s a lot that begs for further exploration. Next week we’ll consider the intriguing notion that age might be just a state of mind.

What’s it all been about?

***  Time for this post? Reading…4 minutes.  Viewing…20 minutes. Reflecting…as you wish.

It seems natural to me that our interests change as we move through the last years of life. I think of it like the arc of a story—there’s a welling up of action in the middle and then things sort themselves out and resolve for the finale.

Reflection. Assessment. Wondering what it’s all been about. These are on my mind… and I’ve been on the lookout for perspectives I can relate to. You may recall that I recently asked nonagenarian Nora Bitner for her view on the tasks of aging.

Here’s another perspective…

Lewis Richmond is a musician, retired teacher, and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wisera book about how to find contentment and wisdom throughout the aging process.

In his video about aging, he discusses worthy goals such as generosity and givng back, gratitude, living an ethical life, recognizing that everything is connected, and kindness. He says, “Kindness is one of the gifts older people can bring to a society, because they’ve seen what happens when kindness disappears from the world. It’s not pretty.” His video spoke to me and I thought you might enjoy it too.

The explanation of meditation as it relates to aging was a revelation to me. When he said there are two functions of meditation, I had a light-bulb moment. Suddenly I understood why I don’t relate when meditation is promoted for its calming and relaxing benefits. I don’t need or want that. I prefer to sit quietly with my thoughts, tune in to my body, and gain perspective and insight.

As Lewis Richmond explains, what I’m engaged in is the other function of meditation—the ability to see what’s real. Not as I imagine it, not as society tells me it should be, but what it really is for me. What’s bothering me about my aging body? What am I afraid of? What unresolved emotions are lurking in the background? Quiet time gives me the space to explore these questions.

Reflection and contemplation help us make sense of our lives as we approach the finale. In our elderhood, we need space to reflect more than we need time to calm down.

Every breath, new chances.

“Attending to your inner thoughts” is one of the worthy goals Lewis Richmond identifies. This, for me, is one of my major tasks as I age. I want to allow unresolved questions and issues to surface, face them with kindly attention and care, and transform them so they’re no longer burdens and preoccupations.

I want to be free of encumbrances as I go into my last days. In my view, that will make it easier to make a graceful exit. Every day that I’m still here, I have new chances to lighten my load and get ready.

There’s so much else to unpack from Lewis Richmond’s presentation. What spoke to you?

Stop. Take a breath.

*** Time for this post? Two minutes and that’s it!

My family and friends know that I can be pretty focused when I hone in on a project. That has certainly been true as I’ve been learning about dying. My motivation is to be able to help myself through the process when the time comes…and to share what I learn along the way.

The downside of such focus is that single-pointedness can arise. So I’ve been consciously tuning in to counterbalancing viewpoints. I heard this quote in a recent radio interview… Continue reading

Quantity of life … or quality?

*** Time for this post?  Reading…2 minutes. Viewing…19 minutes. Taking it in…as you wish.

BJ Miller, a hospice doctor, says, “At the end of our lives, what do we most wish for? For many, it’s simply comfort, respect, and love.”

Yet the statistics show that most of us in our over-medicalized Western culture do not die that way. And it’s easy to see why.

Doctors are trained to keep us alive, There are a lot of treatments they can offer before giving in and saying the dreaded sentence, “There’s nothing more we can do.”

Now, let’s be clear. The blame doesn’t lie solely on the shoulders of doctors. We, the people who are offered these treatments, may not yet have come to terms with the fact that we will surely die sooner or later. In this mindset, we aim for quantity of life and lose sight of the quality of life we may really be aching for.

When we are uneasy about our inevitable death, we grasp at any possibility that’s offered to us. Yet, as Stephen Jenkinson says, the “more-time” bargain we make to avoid the end of life has consequences we never imagined.

Quality of life as we near the end…

Continue reading

Footwear too cool to dispose of.

***  Time for this post? Reading…7 minutes. Thinking about why you keep what you do…optional.

I know people who feel they must purge their living and storage spaces before they die. Their intention is to make it easier for their family to wrap up their affairs. What a shame!

True, it might help the family dispatch the estate efficiently. But what will they miss out on?

My take on that…

I think there’s something to be gained when others go through what we leave behind. They may learn things about us that they didn’t know, remember long-forgotten events, and gain perspective on who we were.

The way I see it, this is part of our legacy—and we are shortchanging our survivors if we leave a stripped-down version of our life.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for leaving an unholy mess. Like Margareta Magnusson, I think I should take responsibility for what I keep. And part of what I want to keep is those things that illustrate my history. For example…

Footwear too cool to dispose of…

Continue reading

When is enough enough?

***Time for this post?  Reading… 8 minutes.  Viewing…12 minutes. Exploring what is deeply satisfying to you…as long as it takes.

It’s not easy to know when to call it quits, to speak up and change course when we’ve had enough.  This bold action requires us to think deeply about what’s important, and to take a stand for it…even when those around us have a different opinion about what we should do.

We are not enculturated to live—or die—on our own terms.

How much is enough?

… “enough” is not a number—it’s what is deeply satisfying.

The above quote is from Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my book about using our resources intentionally. It helps us all navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.

As I learn more about the way we die in the West, I keep seeing parallels between consumption of consumer goods and our engagement with healthcare services. In both cases, we can end up being used by the system rather than served by it. Continue reading

Alternate Death Traditions

***  Time for this post? Reading …1 minute. Viewing …19 minutes. 

Enculturation is the process by which individuals learn their group’s culture—through experience, observation, and instruction. It is how traditions evolve.

We all become enculturated, that is, steeped in the way things are done in the society in which we live. It’s what we know, what we get used to, what we think is normal.

How WE do death isn’t the only way…

Continue reading