Understanding life via ‘death anxiety’ (it’s not depressing)

Mon 19 – Sun 25 Oct 2020

Sometimes you can read a book and it makes you think ‘I get it!’ Like a cloud moving and the sun breaking through so you can appreciate it warming you up. I am aware this may sound a bit cult-like but bear with me. The book I have been reading (and still am) is ‘Staring at the Sun’ by Irvin Yalom and it’s all about death anxiety.

skulls in wall

Yalom is a psychotherapist dealing with many people whose emotional problems boil down to their fear of death. I’m not reading his book because I’m afraid of dying – it’s inevitable and I try to think why worry about something that is inevitable?

Although I do realise it is a totally human desire to cling to life and avoid death. I’ve been with dying people during the AIDS crisis plus with Bob and Brian; I’m pretty sure their concern and confusion will be how I feel when my time eventually comes. There is a recurring theme in literature of how dying people try to cling onto light.

But Yalom’s book is making me realise how much our general everyday thinking about so many different things is linked to in-built death anxiety. And that is helping me understand some of the things happening in my life as well as learning how, hopefully, to live a better life.

β€œThe day you stop caring what other people think of you is the day your life begins.”

Aaron Eckhart

Health and Efficiency

Coping with injury

One aspect of death anxiety is to try to constantly improve things or struggle to obtain something lost – youth in particular. But all things deteriorate and die. I have been struggling last week with my ongoing knee problems. I have seen relatives needing knee operations and I worry this might be my inevitability.

I need to accept that if this happens then it happens. But in the meantime I can try to do things to make it better. Based on medical advice I have received I am trying to do exercises to build up my leg muscles without putting too much pressure on the knees. And I am treating my particularly problematic right knee with anti-inflammatory and painkiller gels.

But I know that I need to accept that in the end it may get worse and things never be as good as they were. That decline in this, as in everything, is ultimately inevitable – look at the way my gym closed in the pandemic and still hasn’t reopened. And I’ve got to accept that it might never open again. πŸ™

Sitting is the new smoking

Our youth and fitness culture is almost certainly linked to death anxiety. But it is clearly a good thing in itself to stay healthy as long as possible so you can remain active and enjoy life.

Last week I bought a stand-up desk. The idea being that simply by standing, rather than sitting, we are healthier. There are classic health studies that show bus drivers died earlier than bus conductors (remember those?) – all other factors removed, the key difference is that one had a more sedentary life than the other who stood for longer.

And, of course, monks and clerks before the twentieth century would usually have stood to do their book-based work. It’s not always easy to stand for a long time and it slightly aggravates my knees at times. However, according to my gadget watch, I am burning more calories. πŸ™‚

Jog-run

I love my jog-runs – they are one of my favourite forms of exercise particularly as my gym has gone. But I realise I’ve also got to balance this with not aggravating my ongoing right knee problem in particular. A little bit for as long as possible is better than having to give up totally.

Thus I did a short jog-run on Mon which was after a week’s break to allow for my knee to get better. TBH my knee doesn’t hurt when I run but it does hurt in the days after. Only did just over 3 km which went OK with a relatively slow pace of 6 and a half minutes per km.

lady going for jog-run in cold weather

Managed another shorter jog-run on Fri morning. Felt OK on my right knee again though it’s usually after which is the problem. Pushed the distance a wee bit more – 3.25 km and the pace was slightly better than on Monday. πŸ™‚

Weight

My desire to lose weight may be based on a death anxiety type chase for immortality. Though I also know it’s linked to vanity (which may itself also be related to death anxiety).

Good to know that I have basically stayed the same in terms of weight last week. So perhaps the standing desk, jog-runs, and long walks are all having some impact. Big thing will be if I can achieve weight loss. The key issue is my calorie intake which I must deal with if I really want to lose weight – and do I? πŸ™

Details on my jog-run times and weight here.

Sustainability

Consumption as an expression of death anxiety

I continue to try to be an exemplar of frugal living. The idea that we should consume as little as possible. And the need to consume is clearly linked to death anxiety. That by buying things, we are denying death will eventually come. And even continuing to buy when we know it is damaging the world for generations to come but, hey, it’s all about our short-term pleasure.

I myself do indulge in a bit of hoarding – my problem is books. Even when I continue to buy them second hand (i.e. from the charity shops), I still know I won’t be able to read them all before I die.

The conundrum of frugal living

Buying the stand-up desk is a classic dilemma for those of us trying to adopt frugal living. Is buying something for health benefits still OK? Especially when it is something made in China and shipped to the UK – all plastic and metal. It’s like the conundrum of travel; if you don’t take that polluting flight or hire that car all is good. But that flight will still go anyway and some places you can’t get around without a car i.e. if there is poor public transport.

Books and Reading

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’

I read this book last week. A great piece of classic sci-fi to read alongside Yalom’s non-fiction analysis of death anxiety. Written in 1959 by Walter M.Miller Jr, it’s firmly embedded in the cold war fear of nuclear conflict. Very real – my mum tells me about the Cuba Missile Crisis, waking up each morning expecting that the nuclear war had started. Indeed, apparently her and my dad married in case he was called up to fight. Wonder whether nuclear conflict or climate change are the bigger danger now?

Death anxiety and climate change

In ‘Leibowitz’ we follow the aftermath of a nuclear conflict and the rise of a new church. This is followed by a new renaissance and another nuclear war even though they knew about the disaster that followed the one over a thousand years before. It’s bleak but with some humour and a wry look at religion particularly the way mythologies develop. Not always an easy read but it definitely deserves to be considered a sci-fi classic. Highly recommended.

Family and Friends

Why family and friends are important

The need to build contact with your friends and family may be related to death anxiety. But it may also be linked to the need for humans to have companions. For instance, in evolutionary terms, it’s important to have people to learn from, share tasks, care for each other, and defend each other.

Spent some time with mum last week in our social bubble and she continues to be well. However, she is bored and a bit depressed about not going out so much. It’s a hard balance. I’m keeping her safe but she feels the quality of her life is suffering. πŸ™

No great contact with friends particularly after the get-together meal for Monday night was cancelled following the new regulations. Main contact with friends was via social media. I have said before, one should not ignore the importance of our online life and how that enables us to remain in contact and communities. πŸ™‚

β€œA single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”

Amelia Earhart

Art and Culture

Nothing major to report but that’s OK

In my previous blog (read here), I didn’t know what artistic or cultural event would be happening for the week coming up. And guess what, nothing happened! I thought about a trip on Fri afternoon to Tate Britain or the National Gallery but, ultimately, I just didn’t feel like it.

Not going to give myself a hard time – hopefully something will happen next week. There are tons of good exhibitions in London at the moment – Electronic Music (Design Museum), Turner (Tate Britain), Artemisia (National Gallery), Arctic art (British Museum). πŸ™‚

Personal Development

My love of learning languages

Lots of thinking ahead of my life coach session next week. But main news is that I continue to keep to the 100 day language challenge. And I have done over 80 consecutive days usage of the Duolingo app. πŸ™‚

I try to do 4 exercises per day in different languages. I’m deliberately including Greek and Russian on alternate days as they are really complex. I have also got into the routine of also doing a 5 minute stint on Drops each day targeting improving my German.

My only regret is that I can’t have this sort of discipline in doing other PD areas like improving my computer / developing skills. Perhaps I should just be happy with one area of success. Indeed, cramming too much in and striving too hard may also be an expression of death anxiety.

Colonial mentality

The Week Ahead

  • Session with my temporary life coach on Tuesday to help think about what I really want to do next and my plan for the next few months
  • Going to carry on nursing my long-term knee injury and try a couple more well-spaced out but relatively short jog-runs. Each time I will try to slightly increase the distance.
  • Hopefully a few good purposeful walks. And I really should try to get in a specific artistic or cultural experience.
  • Am currently reading the diaries of a woman who lived in Berlin during WWII. Imagine the death anxiety people were dealing with then (though don’t forget what it must be like living in similar war zones now – Syria, Yemen, etc.)
  • Will finish Yalom’s death anxiety book (Staring at the Sun) and write about it more in next week’s blog
  • Need to start reading the book for the next Velvet Page book club. It’s a queer classic, ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ by Quentin Crisp.
  • Hope to spend some time with mum and really should try to organise some meet-ups with friends
  • Should think about getting a haircut – reducing the frequency of these is one way to reduce my spending. Also theoretically need my dental check-up but not sure they are even happening these days…
  • No further big expenditure planned aka my wonderful standing desk. So will focus on frugal living – consuming and spending less.

And Finally…

A defaced billboard

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