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Covid and confronting our own mortality

The pandemic has forced us to confront the issue of death: how do we think about dying, and what does it mean for how we live? 

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A few months ago, not long after the UK and US experienced their worst daily death tolls of the pandemic so far, a former student sent me an article from a conservative religious journal in the United States. Its author argued that Christianity claimed the freedom to look death in the face and not be afraid; so why should believers capitulate to the prevailing fears of a society for whom death was the greatest evil imaginable? Why were churches being closed? Surely those who were confident that eternity lay open to them should be able to stand apart from the fussy self-protection mandated by a narrow secular imagination?

There seems quite a lot wrong with this, and I’ll come back to the details later. But there’s a fair question in here somewhere – one that opens up a wider set of questions about how, if at all, we think about death in the valley of this current shadow. It is not only about the death I might risk as an individual or the deaths of those I love, but the trauma of people dying unaccompanied. It’s about being unable to say goodbye, about socially distanced funerals. About the stress on medical professionals coping  with levels of mortality they have never experienced before. About unbearable pressures on the vulnerable, the poor, and the abused. About how we talk about all of this to our children without creating terror and confusion. It’s to do with all the ways in which we feel a new nakedness in a potentially menacing environment.

Our society is notorious for struggling to find a vocabulary for thinking about death. Most of us feel instinctively that the death of someone we love needs marking as more than just a biological fact: we need to acknowledge that we ourselves are changed by it, that we now live in a new territory. This recognition brings its own discomfort and uncertainty. We need rituals to carry us through, as we do with all major transitions – and not everyone is sure where to find them. In “normal” times, the loss and sadness that funerals are supposed to help us with are bound up with the awareness that these changes are irreversible: we are facing the fact that human lives have limits. A “good” funeral tells us that these limits to human life don’t make the life that has ended meaningless, and that our own lives may be limited but are still  a proper occasion for wonder and respect.

Lonely deaths and stripped-down funerals leave us facing raw pain without much that will help us find new perspectives and possibilities. Most people hope for a peaceful death, having a chance to say our goodbyes, expressing love and loss in a fitting public ritual. These wishes are bound up with two fundamental truths: that we find the prospect of death (our own or other people’s) fearful and disorienting, and that as human beings we have resources to explore and live with the disorientation.

This loss of direction is a major challenge. And it is worst for those who have invested most heavily in a world that they can manage and control. Recognising our mortal limits, and those of others, amounts to admitting that our management capacity is not infinite: there are features of our world that we are not in charge of and never shall be. The anthropologist Ernest Becker, in his 1973 classic, The Denial of Death, writes about the whole system of cultural defence and conditioning that we create in order to silence or at least postpone the consciousness of moving towards an end, the recognition that we are not ultimately safe. As he says, this consciousness is a biological given, the basis of our learning for survival. The odd thing is the fact that we habitually behave as if we could make ourselves safe. Becker talks about an “impossible paradox” in the coexistence of our necessary biological state of alertness to danger and our “obliviousness” to it in most of our life.

But the whole of his book resists any idea that our options are simply a perpetual state of anxiety or a perpetual state of denial. Human beings live with two simultaneous pressures – the need to be able to make some sense of your life, to tell a story about what has happened that does justice to your capacity to make a difference; and the need to know you are part of a larger reality in which you are anchored and supported. Focus only on the first of these and you have a hectic compulsion to establish a territory that is exclusively yours and subject to your will. This leads to what Becker calls the myth of being “self-created”, in which the ideal state is to be beyond all dependence, or even all real interaction. But focus only on being part of something larger, and you can slip into a shedding of responsibility, becoming an easy prey to manipulation and tyranny. Or else you opt for a passive and protected indifference to what can be and needs to be changed.

Both are ways of “denying death” – the former because it refuses to accept the limits of time and body, the latter because it avoids the risk of responding actively to the opportunities of one’s environment.

Becker wants us to think about “what a person would be like if he [sic] did not lie”. It is a startlingly blunt summary of the job of growing up. But one of the surprising aspects of his book is his bold reversal of the assumption that religion is a way of denying death. On the contrary: religious faith, when it is doing its job (which he admits it does patchily), tells us that we are capable of making a difference, but not all the difference. We can accept that we depend on an agency and a gift beyond what we can clearly understand; and in the light of this we need not be intimidated by any human system of power. We all share a basic dependency. No individual and no regime is invulnerable or in total control. When we understand this, we are free both to resist and to accept; to act in hope, and yet not to be trapped in fantasies of individual heroism and power.

Not lying: it’s not a lot to ask, surely? But whenever we think we have taken this on board, the next threat constantly pulls us back into denial. If we can’t quite convince ourselves that we can become invulnerably safe, we look to people who tell us that they will do it for us – and so set ourselves up for a repeating pattern of unrealistic expectation and savage recrimination. If it’s hard for us as individuals to cope with our fragility and tendency to make mistakes, it sometimes seems even harder to admit that our leaders don’t have to be infallible heroes either. A properly adult society would certainly not be one where leaders were never subjected to questioning and criticism – but equally certainly it would not be one oscillating between impossible expectation and corrosive cynicism.

If Becker is right, the denial of death is indeed at the root of a lot of our social and individual pathologies. And all this implies that we cope best with the prospect of death when we can see value and depth in something that isn’t us; and when we don’t bestow value based on how something makes us feel or how useful it will be. Then we should be able to see that not everything depends on our success; the worth of the world is not a function of our will and effort.

The challenge is to work out what our role is and to perform it with a conviction that the wider reality we’re part of has a life or integrity that includes us but isn’t constituted or invented by us. It means both permission to fail and (to adapt Samuel Beckett’s famous phrase) motivation to fail better.

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The annoying thing about the American article I mentioned at the beginning is that it is almost right. There are worse things than dying, and facing death without panic is indeed something that ought to characterise people who profess serious faith. But then things begin to go astray. Its implication is that believers are natural heroes and that their heroism should dictate how a whole society reacts to crisis.

We need to stop there for a moment. Say it is true that for me death is not the worst thing that can happen; this is partly because I recognise that things and people I love, value and depend on are not destroyed by my death. If I have been in the habit of acknowledging what is loveable and worthwhile in my life, death can seem less of a total catastrophe.

And, of course, it’s true that for a religious believer, the fact of my biological demise does not destroy the relationship I have with the sacred reality on which I and everything else depends. But this means that my own readiness to face death is not a matter of individual heroics. It is a willingness to accept my limited place in the scheme of things in a way that allows me to move over and give room to others, to a new generation. As some commentators have shrewdly observed, the fascination in some quarters with cryogenics and other would-be scientific dreams of immortality is that they are premised on the absolute certainty that the place I occupy must be defended forever: denying death ends up denying birth. Who needs new generations if we can keep our precious selves going indefinitely?

So, faced with the threat of fatal pandemic disease, trumpeting one’s own willingness to be fearless is not what matters. If individual fearlessness or freedom mean a blithe disregard for the well-being of others, they intensify the problem. And they do so precisely because the key factor is not the simple risk of death to me as an individual (whether I’m religious or irreligious).

Wilfully risking the health of others to demonstrate my courage or my faith doesn’t only increase their danger of death. It also increases the risk of that wider range of traumas and losses we noted earlier – the pain of bereavement in abnormal circumstances, the bewildering disruptions of our life in society, the strain on those working in public utilities and healthcare (whom we have suddenly discovered to be heroic in ways not demanded of most of us), and much more. This is why the continuing debates over children returning to school are fraught with confusion and polarisation. Whatever the sensible and practical answers are to the many problems presented by the pandemic, there should not be a stand-off between the brave and the cowardly, or the selfish and the public-spirited.

Not denying death – not lying – involves seeing where death starts eating away at societies, relationships and imagination. A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death isn’t a call to heroics for the ego. It is an invitation to attend, to be absorbed in value, depth and beauty not our own. It is to recognise the gentle insistent pressure of a shared reality which tells us to make room for one another. 

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 21 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Failed