Struggling With Mortality

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We’re all struggling with mortality in its various guises but most of us aren’t fully aware of the toll that struggle is taking on us, or even that we’re struggling at all. Why? Because the debilitating, gut wrenching, drop you to your knees existential anxiety cued off from the prospect of mortality that explodes into conscious awareness compels us to shy away from the whole package without ever opening it up, without even looking at it.

We don’t delineate between the underlying mortality and the painful feelings of anxiety set off from it. Instead what we sense is a terrifying, faceless, malicious monster. Not surprisingly we run away, we seek psychic cover. We go back to our tried and true behaviors for finding some relief. We drink too much, or work too much, or drug too much, or eat too much, or t.v. too much,, or conflict too much, or meaningless sex too much, or do any number of the other too much behaviors that don’t help us grow, that don’t fulfill us, that aren’t helping us live our best lives, that don’t make us the best versions of ourselves, but that do serve the sought after function of diminishing painful feelings of existential anxiety.

Probably the biggest reason we recur to all those too much behaviors rather than honestly looking at the source of our existential anxiety is that we know on some level, if we’re being honest, that mortality is a problem without a clear solution. As much as most of us want to be alive, want to live forever, death is our destiny. We can rail against that unalterable fact all we want but the march of time keeps on in its steady rhythm just the same.

There are certain signposts along our life paths that remind us of this fact, that subtly or forcefully place the prospect of mortality into our conscious awareness. Birthdays, deaths of loved ones, breakups, career changes, moving from place to place, changes in the body, and myriad other happenings that qualify as ‘mortality events’ leave us awash in anxiety. In this state of anxiety and the desperate tunnel vision that anxiety entails we have a hard time tracing the clear, obvious, direct line between our painful anxiety and the ‘mortality event’ that set it off in the first place. We’re all struggling with mortality, we just don’t all know we are. 

What we’ve got to do if we want to live fulfilling lives, if we want to become that which we were always supposed to be, is to lean into our existential anxiety cued off by the prospect of real or symbolic mortality rather than continue to run away from it through our too much behaviors and other defense mechanisms. We’ve got to summon up the courage to deep sea dive below the psychic surface so that we can more clearly see how so many of our destructive behaviors, while rationalized on some plausible grounds, are in actuality the manifestation of a desperate attempt to keep the prospect of mortality unconscious and to keep the anxiety that stems from this prospect at bay.

Existential anxiety is not our enemy, it’s our friend. It’s an alarm clock. Alarms can be unpleasant but they exist in order to remind us that we have an appointment we need to keep. Existential anxiety is the alarm clock reminding us that we have an appointment with life, with our life. It’s the alarm clock reminding us there’s something threatening that has already happened to us or maybe about to happen to us, and this something requires all of our mindful, compassionate attention right now. It requires us to either make certain productive changes to our behavior or to grieve what we’ve lost in order to move forward with what we now have. As long as we recur to our various preferred defense mechanisms and too much behaviors instead of squarely facing and coming to terms with the mortality that is the authentic root of our existential anxiety we remain in a holding pattern, we remain in a state of stagnation, we remain in the exact same rut we’ve been carving out for ourselves for a long time. We don’t grow, and we certainly don’t learn anything we can apply to our lives moving forward. We ignore, repress, project, blame, fight, claw, scratch, hate, despair. But we don’t grow.

We might not be able to alter the unalterable, we might not be able to change our fate of mortality, but we do have the freedom to become the best versions of ourselves now while we have the chance. It’s by honestly confronting our mortality that we gain the impetus to decide to live our best lives now instead of later.