Strange times we are living in. With SO much worldwide division, unrest, dislocation and violence, thinking about either coherence OR community seems like a thing of history or an utter pipedream. I write this blog in American in the 21st Century. Is it even possible to achieve these things in our post-modern landscape that has been utterly redefined by technology? But I have been thinking about them both here in rust belt America. A lot. I am watching where it seems to still live, where it has been lost and what community itself is made of. Did we ever have it? Was whatever was had of traditional “American Life” just a product of repression, abuse or xenophobia? Is there anything to be salvaged from the world of the destructive and violent 20th century we have inherited? What does community even mean any more in a time of corporate occupation, social media domination, epidemic anxiety and rampant narcissism? Big questions.
I have tons and tons of thoughts, feelings, theories about these things. What insights I have come from is the same unlikely place that I often write about: what the body and energy and relationships of people growing, aging and dying have taught me. I can hear you saying “What can that possibly have to do with any of our large social/political problems?” Well (if you are asking that)….everything.
Take a look at this film, or listen to this lecture and you will get a look at how three social science researchers have connected death anxiety to our political and social behavior. And guess what? It explains a LOT. Death and dying not only has deep implications for us as individuals thinking about our lives, and for relationships, it has huge implications for our culture, communities and groups, in ways that would take way more than a blog to tell you.
But here is the upshot.
Existential anxiety (or the anxiety of being reminded of our own death) has been shown to cause people to:
- Stay closer to people who we perceive are more like us (in appearance, culture, language etc).
- Distance ourselves from people who we perceive are different than us (in the same).
- Believe that our group is superior to other groups.
- Identify with ideologies that promise immortality (i.e. religions)
- Align ourselves with strongmen or narcissistic leaders.
- Adopt punishing or punitive or even violent remedies of those we might perceive as different, or who violate our ideas of goodness.
Woah, woah, woah…so this is all just personal FEAR?
According to these researchers, death anxiety is the ultimate fear running unconsciously in the human psyche. It threatens self-esteem, and can threaten a person’s belief that they play an important role in a meaningful world. This feeling is so intolerable to the human psyche that we will do almost anything to protect ourself from that thought, or the symbolic immortality we identify with. Including destroy others.
If this was the only reality it would be a sad day, because of course death is a part of our story and an important part of our life. But guess what? Skillful work with death and dying is also the remedy. Over and over I observed that when we encounter mortality in ways that are loving, natural and supported the opposite was also true. Being with this kind of dying actually…
- Reduces existential anxiety.
- Gives us self-esteem.
- Connects us with others even over differences
- Helps us heal personally, find our unity with nature and each other.
- Become more tolerant in general.
- Creates bonds between people that are deep, real and lasting.
This raises some really important questions in a time of epidemic loneliness and anxiety. Could it be that systemic miseducation about mortality, living in a death ignorant culture, and keeping death out of sight has actually created some of our social issues? Could it be that skillful work with dying might bring us some of the depth of healthy community connection that we long for? I have seen this to be absolutely true. We need conscious death to help our tribes (or communities) cohere. Hence my work with things like this.
Studying energetics of connection has taught me so many other profoundly useful things. Among them is how profoundly we are primates and herd animals who live best in smallish flexible groups which sit regularly together. We actually need this sense of tribe to grow up, define ourselves, find a place in the world, survive, live and die well. Ask any twenty-something trying to find a place in a world without this support and no lower rungs on the ladder of life!
It is necessary to find and create tribes, but not just any tribe. Our survival hinges on learning to cohere in communities that are healthy and supportive. Ones that not only endure, but have the capacity for wisdom and healthy interconnection with each other. To live intelligently on this planet, our tribes need to breath and to be intelligent (just like the relationships I wrote about several weeks ago ) . Much like individuals, groups need to engage in healthy exchange of things and members. They need to respect boundaries, have compassion and a sense of humor, be self-deprecating, support each other and be aligned for the highest good. In a word, we need tribes that support wisdom and cultivate wise individuals. And that in my view is the highest challenge of our time and our politics. What is wisdom if not the capacity to metabolise and grow from what appears to be different?
Understanding our primate nature, working with our tribal nature and creating wisdom cultures that work well with other cultures, is the last best hope for humanity. Our processes of birth, development and aging and dying give us the most clues about how this might happen. They are themselves are our universal human language. They unite us as a species and they can be learned.
Well, anyway, this learning and teaching this is how I choose to spend my time in the world. This is what we work on at the School of Unusual Life Learning. Which, come to think of it starts in just a few weeks. : – ) . There are still a few places. Thought some of you cultural creatives and planet savers might just want to know about it.