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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Awe: An Antidote to Death Anxiety

How awe neither denies nor catastrophizes death anxiety.

I've been hit with death anxiety or the fear of losing my foothold on life/reality several times over my 64 years. This happened in the wake of my brother's death when I was very young; in the midst of a storm while body surfing in the ocean; in 4 feet of snow at the side of a ski slope; and in the upheaval of isolation far from home. I'm sure many of us can relate to such times where the fabric of the familiar is ripped by an unexpected shock that lays bare the groundlessness—the utter and radical disorientation—of existence. I'm also sure that COVID-19 has played this role for many. The virus has ruptured family ties, daily routines, social gatherings, vocational goals, classrooms, and travel plans. It has terrified children and adults, and has instilled continual low-level anxiety with every effort to move about and live "normally." In short, COVID-19, like every traumatic shock, has stripped us of our moorings, both physical and psychological, and this dislocation shakes the very foundations of what it means to be a contained, coherent being. But there is another way to view death anxiety. This is a path that Ernest Becker hinted at but did not make fully explicit in his classic The Denial of Death and that is the path of awe. Awe can be understood as the humility and wonder or sense of adventure toward living and it provides a very different course direction than many of the other ways we react (as distinct from respond) to death anxiety. Becker was brilliant at unpacking the former, but only began pointing the way with regard to the latter. This is not at all to discount the enormity of Becker's contribution to our understanding of the human situation, and particularly fear and anxiety, but probably due to his tragically short life (of 49 years) he had much less to say about constructive ways to counter (that is, respond to as distinct from react against) death anxiety. That said, Becker did articulate how a more "balanced" perspective on death anxiety, one that recognized its inevitability and the folly of humans attempting to erase or pretend we're superior to it, could be salutary. This perspective, Becker suggested would neither deny nor catastrophize death anxiety but encounter it in its full creative and tragic dimensions, and thereby enable people to live fuller and more creative lives. To put it succinctly, Becker pointed to awe as an enlivening antidote to the crippling, overreaching, and ultimately embittering reactions to death anxiety that have plagued humanity since its inception. In many ways, one could look at my body of work on awe (in books such as Rediscovery of Awe, Awakening to Awe, The Polarized Mind, The Spiritualityof Awe, and The Depolarizing of America) as attempts to complement Becker's denial of death anxiety with accounts of encounters with death anxiety.

In this work and through my personal experience, I have come to see awe as one of the few spiritually oriented perspectives that embraces the dread and unease of living as fully as it does the joy and exuberance of living, and as a result becomes revitalizing. It is revitalizing because it recognizes that "death" in its many forms—loss, shock, groundlessness—is an opening as well as imprisonment, and if we can somehow hold both we are afforded the gifts that both hold.

This is not a pollyannish contention because it does not at all deny the horrific and tragic; but it is also not a cynical and despairing view because it affirms equally that disarray and disorientation bring possibilities and discoveries. For examples of this paradox-based sensibility, consider the lives of people like Stephen Hawking whose battle with ALS did not stop him from passionately appreciating the magnificence of the universe; or Viktor Frankl who found "freedom to be" in the most confining circumstances of the death camp; or Maya Angelou who, following a childhood molestation, found new life through great literature, and so on. These exemplars were neither pollyannish nor cynical; they fully acknowledged—and knew—the dislocations of living, but they also at the same time experienced liberation through those dislocations, and the combination brought zest, resilience. Now I'm not saying that we can all be like Hawking, Frankl, or Angelou, but I am saying that they can be our "North Stars," our touchstones toward a more awe-based outlook. Hence if they could find such depth and intensity—such aliveness—in the depravity of their circumstances, surely we can aspire to see the "more" in ours. Psychotherapy and meditation practices are a couple of the paths we can take toward this sensibility, but it is sometimes useful for us to simply stop what we are doing for a moment, collect ourselves as best as possible, and try to notice (vs. judge) the array of possibilities before us. This can be the crucial first step.

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