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When did you first realize you were going to die? This is the opening question in a TedTalk from 2013 called 4 Stories we tell ourselves about Death. (As an aside, and maybe something I should have known, there is a transcript for this talk available, from which I am taking the block quotes). In this talk, Stephen Cave, author of the book Immortality, reflects on how people have created stories about our immortality. His premise is:

Just as there was a point in your development as a child when your sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough for you to realize you were mortal, so at some point in the evolution of our species, some early human’s sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough for them to become the first human to realize, “I’m going to die.” This is, if you like, our curse. It’s the price we pay for being so damn clever. We have to live in the knowledge that the worst thing that can possibly happen one day surely will, the end of all our projects, our hopes, our dreams, of our individual world. We each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse. 

We live with a conscious and often unconscious fear of death. The fear is something that can either hinder us or it can perhaps be a motivator for how we choose to live.

In analyzing this fear of death, Cave suggests that the stories we have developed for our lives are all bias driven. Regarding this bias, He suggests:

Now, the theory behind this bias in the over 400 studies is called terror management theory, and the idea is simple. It’s just this. We develop our worldviews, that is, the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, in order to help us manage the terror of death. And these immortality stories have thousands of different manifestations, but I believe that behind the apparent diversity there are actually just four basic forms that these immortality stories can take. And we can see them repeating themselves throughout history, just with slight variations to reflect the vocabulary of the day.

The four stories he describes and critiques are:

  1. An elixir to prevent death – Fountain of Youth, Philosopher’s Stone, medicine to prevent aging
  2. Resurrection – returning from death. This idea is something that drives a lot of liturgy
  3. The belief in a soul – something of our essence lives on
  4. The creation of legacy – We live on in what we do.

Instead, Cave presents a different model for understanding life and death. He pictures life the story within a book.

Now, I find it helps to see life as being like a book: Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death, and even though a book is limited by beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures. And even though a book is limited by beginning and end, the characters within it know no horizons. They only know the moments that make up their story, even when the book is closed. And so the characters of a book are not afraid of reaching the last page. Long John Silver is not afraid of you finishing your copy of “Treasure Island.” And so it should be with us. Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, and your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story. 

In other words, life is the story we live, not the before or after the story.

I am particularly taken by this metaphor. None of us can know when the book will end. We can only keep building the story that is in the book of our lives. We cannot allow the fear of the book ending be the driving force of how we live. However, we can also not just let the book tell the story. We must work to write the story.

While I do not remember when I first recognized my mortality, I also know that there is a value in death awareness, not to detriment of living life, but to enhance how we live the life we have. Death awareness is a foundational element of chaplaincy/spiritual care training. It is the lesson that helps us be present to witness the death of others. It is a lesson about accepting and acknowledging one’s own fears.