I recently saw an exhibit at the Field Museum called “Evolving Planet” that completely blew my mind. The display takes the visitor through four billion years of life on Earth, starting with single-celled organisms and moving all the way up through the evolution of every species till present-day humans. I knew from biology classes over the years that a ton of species have gone extinct over the course of Earth’s history, but it was still surreal to see it all laid out in a timeline (#nerdalert).
Every 50 meters or so, throughout the exhibit, a sign would indicate that at that point in the timeline, there was a “mass extinction,” where a bunch of species were killed off and only those most well-adapted survived to the next era. To refresh your memory if it’s been awhile since your last science class, that’s what happened when the dinosaurs were killed off—only the birds survived. Earth has had five mass extinctions in its history, and apparently we are on track for a sixth. (As a side note, did anyone else forget that birds were descendants of dinosaurs? Crazy, right? I definitely forgot that. Apologies to my fifth-grade teacher.)
Based on my rudimentary understanding of evolution, I realize that since humans have only been around since the most recent mass extinction, we aren’t destined for long-term greatness on this planet. It seems likely we will be killed off in the next mass extinction and/or we will evolve into some even more advanced species. So when you think about it, our lives are really not that big of a deal at all.
I walked out of that exhibit feeling surprisingly peaceful, thinking about how the years representing my birth till my death probably wouldn’t occupy more than a few millimeters of space on the timeline in that museum. As someone who is not naturally very “chill,” I was reminded that all of the time I’ve ever spent worrying, over-analyzing, and over-planning was a completely unnecessary use of energy, and I could let it go. My significant other walked out with the same awareness that his tiny human life is little more than a blip on the radar of this planet’s existence. But he didn’t share my sense of peace; in fact, he felt more anxious and a nagging sense of meaninglessness.
So why does the awareness of our inevitable mortality (which researchers call “mortality salience”) upset some of us, and relieve others? It depends on how you understand and define your life. It depends what you’ve been through, your spiritual beliefs, and perhaps where you see yourself on the timeline of your dreams, goals, and lifespan development. It also depends on how frequently you think about your mortality and how mindfully you live.
If you react like my partner, with panic, you’re in good company. After all, according to Terror Management Theory (developed in 1986 by Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon), all human behavior is motivated by the fear of our impending deaths. Often, human awareness of our unavoidable demise “generates a state of anxiety that triggers a defense mechanism for the control of thinking” (according to Gordillo & colleagues).
In several recent studies published in the European Journal of Psychology, researchers have explored whether people evaluated an individual’s personality differently or felt more positively or negatively about a person based on whether the person was dead or alive. It turns out that we think more highly of people when they’re dead. We are more positive in our appraisals of a person when they are dead, and rate our impressions of them more favorably even when we didn’t like them very much while they were alive.
This gets me thinking about how it’s socially taboo to “speak ill of the dead.” We can see from heartfelt eulogies that we often focus on a person’s positive qualities quite easily (and forgive their negative ones) once they’re dead. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could harness that same perspective while we (and the people around us) are still alive?
All of this comes right back to the freedom and peace I felt walking out of the Field Museum that day. While it may be a tough sell to some people, I believe it can be profoundly beneficial to think about death. It can take awhile to develop the willingness to sit with that fear and not let it drive the bus (and this is where mindfulness skills come in handy). Despite the discomfort that may arise, though, thinking of death can actually enhance your overall satisfaction with life and enrich your feelings towards loved ones, friends, enemies, and even strangers.
Personally, here’s how I’ve found it helpful:
~Remembering that I will die one day reminds me that there’s no need to strive for perfection. In the grand scheme of things, the way you look, your grades, your salary, and your accolades will literally mean nothing. Isn’t that great? There’s no pressure to do everything “right” all of the time! Given this information, the only reason to strive for an accomplishment or work hard to pursue a goal is out of genuine care for that thing. You don’t have to work hard for stuff that’s on someone else’s agenda (including any culturally-prescribed expectations that don’t resonate for you). This is why it helps to get clear about what matters to you in life, so that you can focus on those values and priorities.
~Remembering that everyone around us will also die one day reminds us that there’s no point in holding grudges or harboring resentment. After all, the person you’re pissed at has an expiration date, too. This applies to all living creatures. I feel boundless love and gratitude for my dog when I remember that one day, he will no longer be with me. I find it much easier to forgive him when he snaps food off my plate or destroys the sofa. I’ve heard from people who have young children that thinking about their limited time on this planet helps soften towards them for throwing a temper tantrum or breaking a mug. Mortality salience can also make it easier to get over the guy who cuts you off in traffic or the rude grocery store clerk.
~Similarly, recognizing loved ones’ mortality helps us to forgive them for honest mistakes, accept their flaws, and deepen our appreciation for our relationships. It makes confronting them when we are hurt a little less scary. It becomes more worthwhile to work through conflicts so that we can make the most of our time together and spend it loving and enjoying one another. It also makes it easier to let go of a relationship when it becomes clear that it isn’t serving you to keep investing, since as the cliché goes, “life is too short” to waste on that BS.
~Since the only thing that’s certain in this life is that we will die one day, we can accept that most of what happens in the universe is completely out of our control. This can be freeing. We are literally only responsible for our own individual actions, and therefore might as well invest what little time we have on this planet to making our actions meaningful and worthwhile.
Way back in the day, the Stoics believed that maintaining awareness of mortality was important and allowed them to experience more gratitude. Recent research has shown these positive effects in modern times, too. When people are reminded of mortality, either consciously (by being asked to think about death) or unconsciously (like walking past a cemetery), they behave more kindly and compassionately towards others and make positive changes in their lives. Their actions are more authentic and more in alignment with their personal values and priorities. When something is time-limited, it becomes more valuable. And when it’s more valuable, we appreciate it more and we focus more on making it worthwhile.
I’m not saying it’s always fun to be aware of your own or others’ expiration dates. Like anything, accepting our inevitable demise can involve a curly, non-linear grieving process. It can mean going through those classic “stages of grief,” sometimes living in a state of denial about it, and other times feeling angry, depressed, or trying to “bargain” away mortality (many wellness companies capitalize on our death anxiety by promising long lives if we use their product or take their supplement). And don’t even get me started on our cultural emphasis on “youth” and “anti-aging,” which could be an entirely separate blog post. Essentially, we find it tempting to ignore, dismiss, or fight against the fact that we all inevitably age and expire.
However, if we can resist the pull to drown in panic or anguish over our lack of importance, and resist going down the rabbit hole of “why even bother trying if none of it matters?” we can use this awareness to deepen our appreciation for life and shift our focus to the things that truly matter to each of us.
Do you agree, disagree, feel ambivalent, or feel totally indifferent? Does all of this “death talk” bring up fear, gratitude, mixed emotions? Whatever your reactions, I’d love to hear from you!