*Update: see comment below for Tom Crompton's reference to a study where sustained reflection on death led to a shift to intrinsic values, while people only briefly reflecting on death responded by chopping down lots of trees!*
"I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that's what it's like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution...And then I go to sleep and wake up the morning and make toast." - Will Self (c51.28)
Who would have thought death would be such a draw? The Twitter hashtag for last night's public event: 'Let's Talk about Death' was #rsadeath but the event was heavily oversubscribed, and in light of the struggle people had getting a seat in The Great Room, #rschairgate was suggested as an alternative. As the chair, there were some tense moments for me, as one might expect, and not least when Will Self appeared to be uncomfortably close to recommending suicide; although many said afterwards that if you're serious about opening up this kind of discussion, nothing can really be off limits.
As indicated in my pre-event post: 'We're all going to die', we put this event on because our denial of death is a key driver of how we live our lives and plan our societies; it is also a key component of whatever we think spirituality is, or should be. The discussion feels difficult at first blush, but once you open yourself to its ubiquity and significance, you almost wonder why people talk about anything else.
I thought the panel were excellent individually and complemented each other well. I offer a few select quotes and thoughts for now, with some analysis to follow when we have the manuscript.
The Philosopher and writer Stephen Cave gave a distilled overview of how human cultures have tried to evade death over time with informed contributions arising from his recent book on the perennial quest for immortality. I particularly liked his not altogether facetious suggestion near the end, imagining a family around the breakfast table posing themselves a familiar question with an important twist: "Given that we're all going to die, what shall we do today?"
I was also struck by the way Stephen set the scene before unpacking details of research in social psychology(c05.00): "Death is a Taboo, maybe our last taboo...Death shifts you into a different gear...If you are religious you'll now be feeling more religious. If you are patriotic you'll now be feeling more patriotic. Whatever the core of your worldview is, because we've mentioned the death word, you'll now be holding on to it more tightly and will more aggressively defend it."
Joanna Cooke offered a compelling perspective based on her experience of spiritual practices as a Therevada Buddhist nun in Northern Thailand; further enriched by her athropological acumen. (c15.40) "In my own sitting I was aware of my own skeletal structure, and the muscles and sinews and so on that make up the body...But not just the body, my body; as in, me....So there is no cheating death here. The meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally...."
Joanna went on to quote Steve Jobs in celebrated Stanford commencement address in 2005: "Remembering you are going to die is the best way of avoiding the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
Spacetime and 'Lifedeath'
Will Self was typically unnerving, subversive and dark, but also brilliant, funny, substantively helpful, and periodically generous in spirit. I was particularly struck by his life/death continuim idea. Just as physicists now speak of 'spacetime' rather than seperate dimensions of space and time, so life and death are not really seperate things.Death is such an integral part of life that we should think of them as part of the same ontological or phenomenological fabric.
Will also made some challenging comments about the State's need for military deaths as a kind of sacrificial rite to legitimase its ongoing monopoly of sanctioned violence Relatedly: (c1.09.30) "Surely there is nothing more obscene than the sight of a priest in military uniform. It really shows the whole charade up for what it is." I was also struck by his sympathy for certain aspects of Christianity e.g. (c37.10)"When I say, as an agnostic, that religion does death well, what I mean is, that the part of me that is a genuine agnostic is swayed, under the influence of a Christian funeral. I couldn't believe I think they do it well if I was sitting there thinking this is obviously...Sky-God nonsense, clearly part of me is responding."
And later, in response to a question by Mark Vernon, I felt part of his answer was particularly elegant line (c49 mins): "What is interesting about Christianity is that it views salvation as simultaneously a dissolution and an actualisation of the ego."
Beyond all the great contributions, my main reflection concerns the connection between the public salience of death and research in the social psychology of values championed by Common Cause. I will unpack this point in another post - because it's a potentially huge issue, but in essence, if reflecting on our own deaths tends to promote intrinsic values(love, nature, craft) and weaken extrinsic values(fame, money, status), and concealing death has the opposite effect, our cultural representations of death clearly have much greater political and economic implications than we tend to realise.