Weekly Review Issue No. 17
On the evidence of overcoming death anxiety, craving oblivion and sacrificing neatness when it comes to death.
Hello and welcome back to another Review. I hope you’ll at least one thing you find interesting, useful or enjoyable. If something particularly resonated, I’d love to know about it.
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What’s alive for me
We bought a house! Between having a baby in a pandemic and buying a house in a cost-of-living crisis I feel like I’m really earning my millennial credentials at the moment.
What’s most interesting to me is the cocktail of emotions another giant life milestone unlocks in my body. It is a real cocktail. But not lime and rum. It’s like warm beer and French vodka. I’m kind of into it because it feels genuine and not like the performative elation you’re supposed to feel when you’ve indenture yourself to hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt to a mortgage society. It feels real, and alive. Which is good ultimately.
Anyway, onto the links!
Research on the edges
Another exciting piece of research from Rachel Menzies and her colleagues. She is really driving the innovation around death anxiety and so exciting to see this work being taken into the next stage with an applied online CBT programme. When it comes to mental health treatments in my opinion this is next wave stuff.
The present study represents the first trial of an online, evidence-based treatment for death anxiety. The finding that most program completers achieved a reliable improvement in their death anxiety indicates the potential efficacy of the treatment. Furthermore, the fact that death anxiety was reduced in a treatment-seeking sample with a range of disorders and a high level of co-morbidity, is particularly promising. The current program also adds to the existing literature by producing changes in death anxiety without individual guidance from a therapist, making it the first of its kind.
I have a slight resentment to myself that as I get older, my attitudes towards religion softens. I spent most of my life as an ardent atheist. Defintely rode the early bandwagon in the mid-2000s with Richard Dawkins, but mostly because he was a close friend of Douglas Adams. Still, this piece from Theos was very insightful and interesting. Finding value in religion is a new one for me.
It turns out it isn’t only the mentally unwell who crave oblivion. Regular life in this world can be beautiful and rich; it can also be boring, exhausting, painful, and deeply disappointing. In medieval times there was an eighth deadly sin: acedia. The fourth century monk Evagrius described it as a weariness of soul that “instils in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself.” Many thought it to be demonically evil, leading to the rejection of God’s good gifts with callous ingratitude. In the 21st century, in the wealthiest, most educated, healthiest parts of the world, levels of contentment are brutally low. In the UK in February 2023 only 24.2% of adults reported high levels of life satisfaction. There is something in our wiring that means many of us have a tendency towards defeatism and gloom.
I started reading this with the preconception that I would disagree entirely. When I read the initial paragraphs I was just taken back by how medicalised, institutionalised and professional-focused the end of life experience in the US is. It just feels so poor. But Sunita Puri does have a balanced perspective despite the clinical context she works in. I think this piece is on the whole, really significant. It usefully deconstructs what we mean by acceptance and loss.
But death is never neat. A good death should be defined by how well and honestly we care for the dying, not by their performance on our behalf. Expecting them to make death a process full of insight and peace only limits our full emotional and spiritual participation in their death. By sacrificing neatness, we can have a conversation about what the dying truly need from us. Understanding their authentic experiences helps us not only to see them more fully but also to prepare, together, for losing them.
This is a long and winding piece, and I can’t say I agree with lots of it. But I thought it was the most interesting things I read this week. There’s something great about independent scholars, and the way they write. There’s a certain activism to it almost. The piece is about philosophy and psychology and how young peope are attracted to it, but it delves into some really nice, meaty discussions about life.
Sadness therefore provides an important key to healthy grieving. It involves ‘letting go’, the freeing up and relinquishing of energy invested in attachments. The cleansing psychological effect of weeping, wailing and other accompaniments of grief, permit the loosening (‘lysis’) of emotional bonds to the object of loss, commencing the process of healing. As painful feelings lose energy, each is transformed into its pain-free complementary opposite. Bewilderment, anxiety and doubt shift towards clarity, calm and certainty. Anger diminishes into acceptance. Shame and guilt give way to purity, self-worth and innocence. Sadness is transformed into joy.
Another oldie being rediscovered on Spotify. This is a track from Do Make Say Think’s 2002 album & Yet & Yet.
This album, and this track especially is inexorably entwined with a month-long traverse I made in 2010 across the US from New York to LA via New Mexico. It was that long break that made me realise I wanted to do the work I do now.
So a gentle reminder that some things take a long time, and in order to find a new path in life, you will need to really step back and get out of your ordinary life and headspace to imagine alternatives. It won’t come from sitting at your desk.