Monday, July 13, 2009



Several weeks ago, I wrote about why human beings fear death. All living organisms cling doggedly to life. But only humans can articulate the reasons why they want to live. I concluded that people fear death because they are “sensory creatures” who derive enjoyment and meaning from their senses. Their senses allow them to stimulate their bodies, affording opportunities for pleasure and satisfaction. Death, however, causes “irreversible sensory shutdown,” precluding any further sensory input. Death cuts short our ability to experience the world with our senses. It eliminates our potential pleasures at the same time it spares us potential agonies. No matter the result, we fear it because we cannot imagine an existence without sense; we simply don’t know “what it’s like.”

Sense is everything. Generally speaking, human beings live for their senses. They want to see, hear, feel, taste and smell things that make them feel inwardly happy. Although some people profess to find happiness through the spirit or by some other intangible route, these are exceptions. For the most part, human beings work, struggle, contend, compete, strive and wrangle in order to bring joy to their senses. They engage in commerce to earn sufficient money to spend their time in a manner that allows them to positively stimulate their senses. Success in commerce allows “sensory success.” Of course, achieving success in commerce takes a very long time. Ironically, those who ultimately succeed in commerce usually do not have much time left to placate their senses. Life for most people follows a predictable pattern: Strive at all times to win in commerce, because success in commerce will provide a reliable means to positively stimulate the senses, thereby minimizing negative emotions and maximizing positive ones. Put simply, it is a race against time. People know that they only have so many days to find happiness. With every passing day, their potential for positive sensory stimulation dwindles. Life is a closing door.

This is why people fear death. Death cancels their ever-dwindling opportunity to achieve positive sensory stimulation and happiness. Death shuts down the senses: Obviously people will fear something that threatens the very capacity that makes it enjoyable to live. In modern American life, people do not just fear death; they try their best not to even think about it. They push it away with all their might. After all, American life follows a program, and death is not on the agenda. The program teaches worldly success, sensory satisfaction and happiness through material acquisition. Sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell are essential to find happiness along this path. American success means success in life and through sense. The tangible world before us is not opaque. In American life, the best things in life are right in front of our eyes: Houses, electronics, cars, bulging bank accounts, boats, overseas vacations. We can possess these things. We can see them; and so can others. Americans tailor every day in their lives to ultimately acquire these things. They work their whole lives without them for a chance to live with them. Sadly, most people do not get all the tangible items they want. But they don’t want to die because that would preclude their opportunity to get them. Still, even if they live, they probably won’t get them, either. But they can’t know that. So they prefer life to death. They want the chance to stimulate their senses in the way they always wanted—which almost never happens.

Death just does not fit in the American life program. Americans have too many other things to do. They have to get jobs, go to school, purchase land, impress their friends, make enough money to retire, go on the right vacations, find health insurance, buy the right stereo equipment, go to dance clubs, watch movies, save money on phone plans, buy a second home and send their children to college. Their goals lie in this world; they are right there for the taking. All these goals involve the senses. There is no time to think about death. It is incomprehensible. No one sees what happens after death, nor can anyone receive a report about it. Put simply, death cannot be achieved, won, savored, acquired or known. That is why it does not fit in the American life program. In a world stuffed with perceptible, achievable, tangible goals, death is the great unknown. It takes people out of the race for good. And when winning the “sensory race” is all that matters, is it surprising that death strikes terror into the competitors? People fear death because it forces them to come face to face with a startling new reality after living their lives believing that sense was the only reality.

Americans manifest their death fears in many ways, both overt and subtle. Overtly, they emotionally react when threatened with death. The law threatens death to the “worst criminals” on the assumption that death is the “worst thing” that could happen to anyone. Because no one wants to die, the law assumes that no one will engage in behavior that could lead to the death penalty. When Americans see violent events in which others die, they feel traumatized. It reminds them they don’t want to die, either. They recoil from the thought that they will not have a chance to stimulate their senses anymore or to follow their life program to potential happiness. Pain plays a role in this fear. But pain is not the main reason why people fear death. People fear death because death cuts short their anticipated life program and its opportunities for sensory stimulation. Americans overtly manifest their fear in this regard when they see others die.

Yet subtle death fears are much more interesting than overt death fears. To some extent, we can explain overt death fears on a crude biological level. Even dogs become terrified when some overpowering force threatens them with death. Self-preservation is not unique to lower mammals; human beings are no exception. Living organisms want desperately to live, and when they perceive that something might end their life, they manifest emotions consistent with a desire to live, including overt death fears. But human beings express their death fears in more subtle ways. We are the only species that uses the mouth, palate and tongue to create intelligible speech. We tend to presume ourselves “superior” to all other creatures because we can do this. We use our speech to do great things as well as treacherous things. We use our speech as much to inform as to confound. We use our speech as much to unite as divide. Although speech may set us apart from other life forms, we certainly do not always use it for abstractly beneficial purposes.

We voice our emotions through speech. Through the words we choose, we indicate how we subjectively feel about certain phenomena. We can use direct words, such as: “I am afraid.” Or we can “circumlocute” our true feelings because the truth makes us uncomfortable. We might say: “I am concerned” when we really are terrified. This is a conscious obfuscation, a self-delusion. But there are other ways in which language itself changes to reflect a pervasive, universal fear, even if the individual speaker does not experience it at the moment he says the words.

Death is a prime example. In recent decades, Americans have almost universally replaced the verb “to die” with “to pass.” George Carlin placed this “word shift” into the growing catalogue of issues about which Americans simply can no longer speak honestly. See Parental Advisory : Explicit Lyrics (1990). He was absolutely right, and for a significant reason: Because death is anathema to the American life program. American language has changed in order to express a prevailing social discomfort with—and even disapproval of—death. Because death stands in such stark philosophical opposition to the entire sense-oriented program under which most Americans live, Americans deliberately refuse to confront the uncomfortable implications. “To die” means to “cease to be.” It refers literally to the moment in which a living person—with senses, ambitions, dreams and a “life plan”—becomes a dead person—with no sensory capacity or potential for sensory stimulation at all. But “to pass” does not literally refer to that biological event. No, “to pass” implies “physical movement through, around, toward or beyond something.” It derives from the Latin word “passus,” meaning “step.” It refers to movement involving tangible objects, places or obstacles, as in: “I passed by the store this morning on the way to my mother’s house,” or “I passed through the door on my way into the office,” or “We passed each other in the hallway.” There is nothing biological or existential about it. It is about banal movement.

Metaphorically, “to pass” can also mean “to end.” But this meaning traditionally refers to events and circumstances, not to death. A wise uncle might say to his nephew: “Dear boy, fear not. For this, too, shall pass.” This did not mean someone died. It meant that some adversity would soon “go away.” And this metaphorical meaning derives from the “physical movement concept” implicit in the word “to pass.” Circumstances—like living beings—can “move through or beyond” fixed points or obstacles. In this sense “pass” does not have an existential meaning.

So Americans now say they “pass” to mean they “die.” Why? To avoid using the scary word “die.” “Die” is a simple word. But it is disconcertingly honest. It goes to the heart of existence and non-existence. It is too honest for American discourse, in which everything depends on life. Only the living can achieve success, acquire property, make lots of money, enjoy sensuous pool parties and go on vacation without financial worry. Only the living can reap commercial rewards because they have senses that those rewards can stimulate. Everything in America depends on life, because everything revolves around sensory stimulation. Death permanently removes a living being’s capacity to experience the world though the senses. Death ends any hope to achieve “success” as conceived under the “American life program.” Americans strive their whole lives to achieve that success; death undermines the entire enterprise. It even renders the enterprise absurd. It is thus little wonder that Americans refuse to even countenance the word when talking about the event to which it refers. So they choose a meaningless, harmless substitute: “To pass.”

I hate to break it to these folks. But when we die, we do not “pass” or “go” anywhere. When we’re dead, our passing days are over. Our bodies are done. They ain’t going noplace, at least under their own power.

Yet some Americans truly believe that “we never stop thinking about money or success.” Last week, I read a few pages from a book written by a “professional money coach” who counsels “executives” struggling to balance their obsession with money with “normal lives.” She wrote about some company Vice President who had to take a day off from work in order to visit his dying mother in the hospital. He felt guilty because he didn’t want to leave work or make a bad impression on the company President. The “money coach,” however, told him that his guilt was natural—and his mother would understand that he couldn’t stay long—because his mother hadn’t stopped thinking about money, either. “We never really stop thinking about money, no matter what our circumstances may be,” she wrote, referring to a dying woman she never met.

I found this shockingly asinine. As much as the “American life program” demands that we fixate our attention on “this world” and the “success” it can bring to our senses, death renders everything moot. I found it preposterous for this “money coach” to presume that a woman facing death had not stopped thinking about money when she was about to die. I can say that I do not always think about money or success, and I am not dying. And I was with my father when he was dying three years ago; I know for a fact he was not thinking about money, success or his job when confronted with non-existence. In fact, he entered an extremely reflective state in which he deeply questioned everything he had done in his life. He wondered why he spent so much energy chasing things that did not really matter. Money and success are among those things that “don’t really matter” when death looms. Yet they are the cornerstones of the “American life program;” and they entrench themselves so deeply in us that many people cannot fathom an event that makes them irrelevant.

But there are ways to accommodate both this world’s fixation on success and the existential fears that spring from contemplating death. Commerce and gain are not the only ways to stimulate our senses. We can achieve sensory happiness without material acquisition or winning a competition for limited resources. After all, these are merely external stimuli. If we can find strength within ourselves, if we can cultivate our own personalities and thoughts, then we might find value beyond commerce. To be sure, this is not a popular path to happiness. Like death, it does not rest easy with the “American life program” because it focuses on subjective meaning rather than objective material acquisition. But by looking within ourselves, we determine who we are, not what we have. And when we stop worrying about what we have, the thought of dying no longer seems so daunting. After all, if “having things” is not so important to us, what does it matter whether we leave “the world of having things?”

If we make that discovery, we are unafraid to say “die.” We do not need to delude ourselves by saying we “pass.” We “pass” the McDonald’s on the way home from work. We “die” when we stop breathing.


American History Y? said...

Your blog is rockin' the boat. You best sit down, or the devil will drag you under by the sharp lapels of your checkered coat. And don't eat all the mini-muffins.

You've been blog-rolled at American History Y? at Wordpress.

Try this on for size:

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thank you for your time, my friend. I am glad you enjoyed the piece, and I will be sure to regularly check in at your blog. This was not a satire per se, but satire is so deeply ingrained me that it manifests itself even in my "serious" essays. There is so much to laugh and cry about at the same time in this world.