Confronting our Fear, Insecurity, and Death
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
12,000 years ago the course of humanity drastically changed. With the gradual incorporation of agriculture as a central part of our societies, larger groups of people banded together and created incredible monuments and technology. However, this change came with a dire cost:
The adoption of agriculture made the average person worse off for millennia. Physical health declined dramatically and most of the world’s people were born into rigid caste systems and lived as virtual or actual slaves…. After agriculture, humans became shorter and less robust and they suffered from more debilitating diseases, from leprosy to arthritis to tooth decay, than their hunter-gatherer counterparts. It is only in the last 150 years or so that the longevity, health, and well-being of the average person once again reached that of the Upper Pleistocene (Gowdy 2020:2)
To buffer these rampant reminders of our mortality and death, we created prototypes for many of the world religions of today. Of course, an ever greater variety of cultural stories existed, but those were gradually assimilated or annihilated through the justifications of other gods and symbols.
It is imaginable that the great change which accompanied the Holocene left a significant scar on those who struggled through it. Their previous lives of healthy foraging were being forced — either through unstable climates or other aggressive humans — into less nutritious and unequal lifestyles. The freedom that once accustomed many foraging cultures gave way to hours of backbreaking work out on the fields, in factories, or serving ungrateful customers.
As a species, we are traumatized by death and our own coming extinction. We are all in denial and unable to cope with the experience of imagining or confronting this reality. So then, what are we to do? Allow me to introduce two starting points. One for ourselves, and another for us as a global community.
Confront your denial mechanisms, insecurities, and death
A starting point for all of us is to self-reflect. By using our incredibly developed brains, we can consciously evoke the thought of our own death and can attempt to understand the mechanisms in which we mitigate this fear. Take some time to think about this:
What do you believe in? What gives you meaning in life and a place to belong in the world? How do you believe you can achieve literal or symbolic immortality within your cultural story?
Write down your though and reflect further upon:
Is the story you adhere to giving you peace at the cost of others (humans and non-humans alike)? Or at the cost of the future wellbeing of these others?
Reflecting upon our own mortality is no menial task. It’s draining, scary, and seemingly pointless — especially compared to the eternal distractions we can entertain ourselves with on the internet.
However, we now know that reflecting upon our own death can become an incredibly enriching experience for ourselves and loved ones around us. Studies show that those who reflect upon their death (or were forcefully confronted with death through dramatic experiences) “report a greater appreciation of the present moment, place more importance on close relationships than material possessions, and report being less fearful of and defensive about their own mortality” (Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 2015:209). Moreover, by reflecting upon our own cultural stories, we can better understand the shortcomings they may have.
Our cultural worldviews are both the disease and the cure. It helps us function and thrive, but often also pushes us to dehumanize, discriminate, and murder. There is no single “perfect” ideal of the world. Even the egalitarian forager bands I so idealized in the opening chapter can fall into the same destructive patterns of conquest when things get difficult. Death is always imminent and if we are to helplessly hold onto our cultural stories for comfort, we may very well die in despair. However, by confronting this death and coming to terms with our humane differences, it may become possible to live in a world that is a little more peaceful and little less horrifying.
In 2014, a Mennonite pastor uploaded a written piece titled “An open letter to my beloved church” to a website now called anabaptistworld.org. I was introduced to this piece through a podcast by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell speaks to the author, Chester Wenger, and his family about the open letter. The letter and episode are about how the pastor of a Mennonite church came to terms with the conflict between his faith and reality: his son was gay. The letter and Wenger’s voice is heartfelt, touching, and deeply reflective:
When my wife and I read the Bible with today’s fractured, anxious church in mind, we ask, what is Jesus calling us to do with those sons and daughters who are among the most despised people in the world—in all races and communities?
What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?
Wenger was a person who did not doubt his cultural worldview and immortality. He was a strong believer in the church he served all of his life.
Yet when presented with a reality of life that threatened all of such values, he did not lash out, become defensive, nor derogate as his fellow believers did. He expressed his generosity, reflection, and love.
I believe — as does Malcolm Gladwell — we must all learn from Chester Wenger and his letter to the church. True courage and expression of human brilliance does not come when we plunder others and our environment around us; it comes when we can overcome this fundamental paradox of our consciousness to embrace the beauty of our existence. Wenger concludes:
We pray that our love in family and Church will bind us together in God’s family even when our understandings of God’s will may differ.
Imagine and keep alive different stories and realities
The second plea I propose for the world is to imagine and protect the various stories and realities our species has told across the globe. I do not mean to maintain these stories through books, recordings, or videos, but to continuously strive and imagine a world in which all of these cultures can coexist.
This is not to exile people who do not adhere to the hegemonic worldview into far corners of the world or onto reservations as we do today, but to create a place where these stories enter the dialogue of the world. I propose this for three reasons.
First, these stories provide an alternate view towards death and a critique against the flaws of other cultures. As in the discussions between Kandiaronk and Lahontan, if such discourse can enter into our daily lives, how much richer would our understanding of the world and ourselves become?
Second, being able to imagine and tell different stories requires much practice. As we continue to expect much change in our world, our stories must constantly be reconstructed and reimagined. It is time to practice being reflexive and conscious in this process.
Third, there is much to learn from other stories. Not only on how to live, imagine, and cultivate meaningful relationships, but also on how to survive. It is projected that the future climate will return to one similar to the pre-Holocene epoch in the next century or two, making sustenance based on agriculture impossible.
Of course, the readers of this book will most likely all be dead by that point, but we will contribute significantly towards how bloody, horrific, and chaotic that change will be. If we allow our consumerist culture based on limitless extraction to continue, the collapse of our global society is something I do not wish to imagine. The have’s will attempt to flee as they already are, as billions of people may be left to die without the slightest of knowledge or power to act upon themselves to mitigate.
However, unlike you and I who are most likely entirely reliant on the supply chain of food, water, cleaning products, and more, there are incredibly resilient and powerful people who continue to live beyond these measures. Most of them are the victims of attempted assimilation and annihilation, yet their will to survive continues until this day. In many fields of study or categories these people are called “Indigenous.”
It’s ridiculous and an oxymoron how people across the globe need to become Indigenous, Native, Aboriginal, or any other name related to it. For example, people in the United States are put up against a false dichotomy in which it is their choice to pursue being recognized as an Indigenous tribe/community or not. Another conflicting reality our society has attributed to them is a view of a static, frozen culture, and way of life. No other group in the world must constantly clarify that their way of life, worldview, and culture is ever-changing and fluid. Yet, we are in a world of absolutes, and we have decided that Indigenous peoples and their ways must be the traditions of the past – only replicated for the sake of it today. This idea is also related to that of Turgot, where there is a single linear fashion in which our societies “develop.”
Regardless of these historical realities of colonization, genocide, assimilation, and in face of the world that continues to see these people as archaic or backward, their voices are among the few that provide a true alternative to the hegemonic worldview. I now turn the following pages to one of these stories. My goal is to act as a moon to their bright minds and stories, reflecting upon this dark world and remind that there is light and hope to be found.
The Trickster and Freedom. From parts of Turtle Island
This story comes in many forms, just as the protagonist does as well. Some call him Nanabozho, others as Napi. Some refer to him as Wîsahkicâhk. It’s deceiving and limiting to attempt to write his name in the right spelling, as these words and letters are those of the colonizer. Here, I will stick to calling him Nanabozho, as that is how I first learned his name and story.
Nanabozho was the First Man, although he was also part manido – a powerful spirit. Yet unlike other stories of the “first human,” Nanabozho was not perfect, but in fact, human. As Harold Johnson, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation tells us, it is exactly mistakes and imperfection that make us human. The mistake of biting into a forbidden fruit won’t make us fall into imperfections, but remind us of our humanity. Because of this, the First Man, Nanabozho, is both the hero and trickster of this story. Nanabozho was given a set of tasks from the Creator, the Original Instructions. He was told to
walk in such a way that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth, but he wasn’t quite sure yet what that meant. Fortunately, although his were the First Man’s prints upon the earth, there were many paths to follow. (Kimmerer 206).
As Nanabozho walked the earth, he learned the lessons present on the land already. He did not go and name all the beings on earth, but listened and learned their names. As he walked, they also called him by his name, calling, “Bozho!” – the greeting continued to be used today by the tellers of this story.
Soon as Nanabozho continued his walk, he came across things that also made him tremble. The fire, the shaking earth, the rampant waters. Yet soon the Fire Keeper, Benton-Banai, teaches Nanabozho of the duality of power. It can both create and destroy, requiring a delicate balance and humility. Just like our cultural stories and belief systems.
The most telling part of Nanabozho is his reciprocal relationship with the world and how he continued to learn and observe them. Nanabozho was mindful. To turn to Harold Johnson again:
The belief in absolutes is one of the main differences between how we traditionally understood the universe and our place and our role in it…. In our stories, nothing is ever presented as rigid and absolute. A fundamentalist is someone who takes a traditional story, like the Bible story or the Quran story, and says that this story is true, right down to every single word, and we must abide by every word. It would be very difficult to become a Cree fundamentalist, because the person who tried to abide by every word would end up behaving like a clown, like Wîsahkicâhk [a.k.a Nanabozho], who often behaves foolishly (58-59).
These stories highlight freedom — the ultimate ideal and dream of the western world. Yet, what freedom is there if only one story, one conclusion, and one idea is the absolute truth?
In another telling story, Harold Johnson recounts is told by Saulteaux Elder Danny Musqua. He expresses how you and I, humans, chose and wished to be both spiritual and physical at the same time (12). Now how is that for freedom? The part of our humaneness that Ernest Becker thought “split us in two” (26) now becomes a choice. An act of agency to embrace the humanity of being both physical and symbolic.
With this view and story, “death is not something to be afraid of. It is something to get ready for” (43).
This book has been a brief historic overview of how we have been dealing with our problem of death. The terror and insecurity of our own death has led to the conquest and killing of countless “others,” justified under many gods, symbols, and rationales. Yet the more we vilify and annihilate the “other,” we are further left to our own insecurities, creating the need to find another to point our fingers at.
Napoleon continuously sought out an enemy to conquer, while the Japanese believed peace would come when all of their peripheries had been assimilated. Europeans simply replaced a divine justification to conquer and subjugate others, with a seemingly new “rational” one.
Furthermore, we continue to sugar pill these pasts, as they continue to provide many with a comfort and facade of heroism. We celebrate the abolition of slavery, incredible growth in wealth and technology, and our conquering of the ecological systems, while conveniently ignoring the detrimental impact it had on many. The stories of Abraham Lincoln and Brown vs Board of Education is told without highlighting how they served to derogate and silence former slaves and black teachers. Similarly, we are equally blind to the lack of belonging, hope, and meaning the modern cultural story provides everyone on each step of our stratified, workaholic societies.
We compound on this issue by providing more means to eternally distract ourselves and detach our minds from the reality of death. While our neighbors and globe is screaming out in despair; we create walls, plug our ears, and simple look away to lose ourselves in the illusion of symbolic or literal immortality.
Inevitably, we will all be confronted with the reality of death, only to find ourselves incapable and utterly unprepared for it.
Death is undeniable. One day, all of our hearts will stop beating and our minds will cease to imagine. Yet the stories we tell may have a chance to continue on.
Let’s take some time to reflect upon them. How does our story deny and transcend death? Will the story you tell and the actions they bring out continue to give life to those after?
As our heart continues to beat and our minds restlessly spin, we have an unprecedented opportunity to consciously reflect upon our mortality, our stories, and our world. Derogating, detesting, repressing insecurity, or annihilating is what we have done for 12,000 years. It is time to tap into our imaginative capacities and reflect upon our narrative, for us and for our future.