We all know that we will die, so why do we struggle to believe it?

tolstoy

Tolstoy photographed by Karl Bulla in 1902. Courtesy Wikipedia

James Baillie | Aeon Ideas

In the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Leo Tolstoy presents a man who is shocked by suddenly realising that his death is inevitable. While we can easily appreciate that the diagnosis of a terminal illness came as an unpleasant surprise, how could he only then discover the fact of his mortality? But that is Ivan’s situation. Not only is it news to him, but he can’t fully take it in:

The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic – ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal’ – had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others.

Tolstoy’s story would not be the masterpiece that it is were it describing an anomaly, a psychological quirk of a fictional character with no analogue in real life. The book’s power resides in its evocative depiction of a mysterious experience that gets to the heart of what it is to be human.

In 1984, on the eve of my 27th birthday, I shared in Ivan’s realisation: that one day I will cease to exist. That was my first and most intense episode of what I call ‘existential shock’. It was by far the most disorienting event of my life, like nothing I’d ever experienced.

While you need to have undergone existential shock to really know what it is like, the experience need not yield any understanding of what you have gone through, either at the time or later. The acute anxiety induced by the state renders you incapable of thinking clearly. And once the state has passed, it is almost impossible to remember in any detail. Getting back in touch with existential shock is like trying to reconstruct a barely remembered dream, except that the struggle is to recall a time when one was unusually awake.

While granting the strangeness of existential shock, the revealed content itself is not peculiar. Indeed, it is undeniable. That’s what makes the phenomenon so puzzling. I learned that I would die? Obviously, I already knew that, so how could it come as a revelation? It is too simple to merely say that I had long known that I would die, because there is also a sense in which I didn’t – and still don’t – really believe it. These conflicting attitudes emerge from the two most basic ways of thinking about oneself, that I will call the outside and inside views.

Let’s consider the way in which my inevitable death is old news. It stems from the uniquely human capacity to disengage from our actions and commitments, so that each of us can consider him or herself as an inhabitant of the mind-independent world, one human being among billions. When I regard myself ‘from the outside’ in this manner, I have no trouble in affirming that I will die. I understand that I exist because of innumerable contingencies, and that the world will go on without me just as it did before my coming to be. These reflections do not disturb me. My equanimity is due to the fact that, even though I am reflecting on my inevitable annihilation, it is almost as if I am thinking about someone else. That is, the outside view places a cognitive distance between myself as the thinker of these thoughts and myself as their subject.

The other basic way of conceiving of ourselves consists of how our lives feel ‘from the inside’ as we go about our everyday activities. One important aspect of the inside view has recently been discussed by Mark Johnston in Surviving Death (2010), namely the perspectival nature of perceptual experience. The world is presented to me as if it were framed around my body, particularly my head, where my sensory apparatus is mostly located. I never experience the world except with me ‘at the centre’, as if I were the axis on which it all turned. As I change location, this phenomenologically central position moves with me. This locus of perceptual experiences is also the source from which my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations arise. Johnston calls it the ‘arena of presence and action’. When we think of ourselves as the one at the centre of this arena, we find it inconceivable that this consciousness, this point of view on the world, will cease to be.

The inside view is the default. That is, the automatic tendency is to experience the world as if it literally revolved around oneself, and this prevents us from fully assimilating what we know from the outside view, that the world can and will go on without us.

In order to fully digest the fact of my mortality, I would need to realise, not just intellectually, that my everyday experience is misleading, not in the details, but as a whole. Buddhism can help identify another source of radical distortion. As Jay L Garfield puts it in Engaging Buddhism (2015), we suffer from the ‘primal confusion’ of seeing the world, and ourselves, through the lens of a substance-based metaphysics. For example, I take myself as a self-contained individual with a permanent essence that makes me who I am. This core ‘me-ness’ underpins the constant changes in my physical and mental properties. Garfield is not saying that we all explicitly endorse this position. In fact, speaking for myself, I reject it. Rather, the primal confusion is the product of a non-rational reflex, and typically operates well below the level of conscious awareness.

When we combine the phenomenological fact of our apparent centrality to the world with the implicit view of ourselves as substances, it is easy to see how these factors make our non-existence unthinkable ‘from the inside’, so that the best understanding of our own mortality we can achieve is the detached acknowledgement that comes with the outside view.

The Buddhist alternative to a substance-based view of persons is the ‘no-self’ account, which was independently discovered by David Hume. Hume introspected only a constantly shifting array of thoughts, feelings and sensations. He took the absence of evidence of a substantial self to be evidence of its absence, and concluded in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) that the notion of a ‘self’ is merely a convenient device for referring to a causally linked network of mental states, rather than something distinct from them.

While remarkably similar lines of thought can be found within Buddhist texts, philosophical argument comprises only part of their teaching. Buddhists maintain that a developed practice of meditation allows one to directly experience the fact of no-self, rather than just inferring it. The theoretical and experiential methods are mutually supporting, and ideally develop in tandem.

Let us return to existential shock. One might be tempted to look for some unusual factor that has to be added to our normal condition in order to bring the state about. However, I believe that a better approach is to consider what must be subtracted from our everyday experience. Existential shock emerges from a radical alteration of the inside view, where the primal confusion lifts so that the person directly experiences herself as insubstantial. I see the truth of no-self, not merely as an idea, but in an impression. I see that my ego is an imposter, masquerading as a permanent self. The most perplexing feature of existential shock, namely the sense of revelation about my inevitable death, comes from my mortality being re-contextualised as part of a visceral recognition of the more fundamental truth of no-self.

But this raises the question as to what causes the primal confusion to temporarily withdraw when it does. The answer lies in Hume’s observation that the natural movement of our mental states is governed by associative principles, where the train of thought and feelings tends to run on familiar tracks, with one state effortlessly leading to another. The relentless operation of our associative mechanisms keeps the shock at bay, and the collapse of these mechanisms lets it come through.

It is no coincidence that my first encounter with existential shock took place towards the end of a long and rigorous retreat. Being away from my habitual surroundings – my social routines, my ready-to-hand possessions, all my trusted distractors and de-stressers – created conditions in which I functioned a little less on autopilot. This created an opening for existential shock, which brought about an inner STOP! – a sudden and radical break in my mental associations. Just for a moment, I see myself for what I am.Aeon counter – do not remove


James Baillie is a professor of philosophy at the University of Portland in Oregon. He is the author of the Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Hume on Morality (2000).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Humanitarian Crisis of Deaths of Despair

woman-statue-despair

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

David V. Johnson | Blog of the APA

Last April, Princeton University economists and married partners Anne Case and  Sir Angus Deaton delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University. The title of their talks, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” is also the provisional name of their forthcoming book, to be published in 2020.

The couple’s research has focused on disturbing mortality data for a specific demographic: white non-Hispanic Americans without college degrees. This century, they have been dying at alarming rates from what Case and Deaton call “deaths of despair,” which cover suicide, alcohol-related disease, and drug overdoses (primarily driven by opioids). These deaths have, along with US obesity, heart disease, and cancer rates, contributed to a shocking recent decline in US life expectancy for three straight years—something which hasn’t happened since World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The rates for “deaths of despair” are not as high for college-educated whites or for other racial minorities, and there are many potential economic and sociological reasons for this.

Case and Deaton’s research raises important questions for the US political economy and the legacy of neoliberalism. But I am more interested in the framing of the mortality statistics as “deaths of despair.” Assume for the sake of argument that a large segment of the US population—non-Hispanic white Americans without college degrees—are suffering despair. What does it mean to say this?

We can gain some insight by contrasting its opposite, hope, which has received a lot of philosophical attention for the puzzles it raises about rationality and agency. Hope is a forward-looking emotion with cognitive and desiderative elements. We hope for things that are possible in the future (we don’t hope for the impossible or the certain), which means we make a judgement about their possibility. And when we hope for them, we desire for them to come about, and this desire can motivate our action if we think our acting can help bring it about. Is it rational to hope for something that has a miniscule chance of happening, and if so, under what circumstances? And when is it rational to act based on hope? Much ink has been spilt on these questions.

Philosophers have also thought about hopefulness—about hope as an emotional tendency or character trait that undergirds agency. People who are hopeful or optimistic are generally better able to pursue their plans and succeed, which gives the adoption of a hopeful outlook a pragmatic justification. One could argue that some minimal level of hopefulness is requisite for anyone to plan, act, and live one’s life, insofar as these involve forward-looking judgments and desires that are characteristic of hope.

We can see why despair, as a condition opposed to hope and hopefulness, can be such a debilitating state of mind. Despair undermines agency. The despairing person may conceive of plans and goals but feel that he is so unlikely to achieve them that they are not worth the investment of time and energy, or that even if he does achieve them, it won’t make a substantive difference to his life. So despair undermines the requisite motivation to pursue our plans and goals. A despairing person tends to passivity, to go along with the flow of life and focus on getting by, making due, and assuaging pain and foreboding however she can at the moment.

But despair—or at least the sort of despair I identify in Case and Deaton’s analysis—has a very different structure from hope. If despair were structurally like hope, then it would also be a forward-looking emotion with the appropriate cognitive and desiderative elements. We would be in a state of despair if we believed there was something that could possibly happen in the future that we do not want to have happen, so much so that its possibility gives us anguish and depresses us, to the point that we have difficulty summoning the motivation to avoid it or to go about our lives generally. To be sure, there are forms of despair that are like this. If my boss gives me a poor performance review and warns that I may be subject to termination, and the livelihood of my family depends upon my employment, this may send me into despair. I see my future firing as possible and something I desperately want to avoid, to the point of anxiety and depression. My despondent feelings may undermine my ability to perform better, making my firing even more likely. I may also have trouble living my life in general due to my negative feelings. I may struggle to talk to my spouse about her day or plan my daughter’s after-school activities.

But there is another form of despair that is not like this. This kind of despair is not forward looking, per se, but rather focused narrowly on the present. It sees the present as dark, dreary, painful, and uninteresting, and anticipates this state of consciousness to extend indefinitely into the future. It’s the feeling of unrelenting misery and ennui. No one wants to feel like this, but the person who despairs in this way does not form the desire to avoid it, or is not motivated by such a desire, because he does not see a means of escape or because the present sense of pain and dreariness is so overwhelming that it disrupts his ability to imagine such means. This form of despair is what Case and Deaton have in mind: people who have not only lost the will to live—i.e. to direct their lives, make plans, pursue them—but are so miserable and distressed that they either die by suicide or self-medicate with drugs and binge drinking to lessen their immediate pain, and do so as a way of slowly dying by suicide. It is the constant feeling associated with present consciousness that life is bad, and that it will continue to be bad indefinitely into the future. A sizable portion of the American public feels this way.

Case and Deaton’s appeal to despair, if we understand it correctly, should shock us. The prevalence of despair represents a horrific communal collapse. It goes well beyond statistics of poor welfare outcomes that alarm economists. It is about the obliteration of human lives—the undermining of the very basis of living a life, the ability to enjoy experience moment to moment, have enough peace of mind and stability to anticipate the future, make plans, and pursue them. It is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis.


David V. Johnson is the public philosophy editor of the APA Blog and deputy editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He is a former philosophy professor turned journalist with more than a decade of experience as an editor and writer. Previously, he was senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, where he edited the op-ed section of the news channel’s website. Earlier in his career, he served as online editor at Boston Review and research editor at San Francisco magazine the year it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence. He has written for The New York Times, USA Today, The New Republic, Bookforum, Aeon, Dissent, and The Baffler, among other publications.

This article was republished with the permission of the APA Blog and the author. View the original article here.

Two Candid Discussions of Mental Wellbeing

From the video description:

In this video — responding to viewer’s requests — I talk a bit about my personal experience as someone who has suffered with depression since childhood, but who was only diagnosed in my 30s. I talk about how it is difficult to determine just where the depression leaves off and other sources of sadness — like loss, pain, grief — begin. I also mention the forms depression took for me, its connection with anxiety and anger problems, and I discuss what I’ve found helped me through depression. I close with a bit of advice about listening to others, when it comes to judging your own value.


From the video description:

Who decides what a ment@l illness is? Is suic!dality always a sign of insanity?

Recommended Reading:

S.R. Blauner, How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me https://tinyurl.com/ybehp5y2

Thomas Szasz, Fatal Freedom https://tinyurl.com/yb22k9vw

Mary Shelley, The Last Man https://tinyurl.com/y9gn2gpg

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism https://tinyurl.com/y9bepjbz

Mark Brown, What is It Like to Be Sectioned? https://www.shortlist.com/news/what-is-it-like-to-be-sectioned

AngieSpeaks, Ment@l Health Under Late Capitalism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7aS1Aabboc

David Bowie – Blackstar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPbuxapYWFc

UK & ROI, the Samaritans – 116123

USA, National Suic!de Hotline – 1-800-784-2433

USA, The Trevor Project – 1-866-488-7386

USA, Trans Lifeline – 1-877-565-8860