Last month the American comedian and actor Robin Williams died. A massive outpouring of public grief followed but now, a little more than a month later, it has all but vanished. What then, I wondered, was all that grief about? And for someone we didn’t even really know.
While thinking about this I came across an insightful article on by Peter Finocchiaro. He first considers the idea that much of this grief was not earnest—that it was more about the person expressing the grief. All the twitter and Facebook activity was mostly about one’s favorite films and how much one was grieving. Finocchiaro thinks egotism is part of the explanation for the public outpouring. After all how many of our lives were really changed by a Robin Williams movie? Still Finocchiaro thinks there is more to it. “Why, exactly, are we making it about us?”
He next considers that our concern for celebrities is a manifestation of the psychological phenomenon called “Basking in Reflective Glory.” By associating with celebrities we feel special, and when they die some of that specialness disappears. Thus we cling to them as best we can by telling everyone how much we loved them or their work. Again Finocchiaro thinks this is a part, but not all of the answer.
At the deepest level Finocchiaro believes this grief is about something deeper—it is about our own fear of death. And I think he is right. In this context Finocchiaro reminds us of the main thesis of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker‘s 1973 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, “The Denial of Death.” There Becker argues:
that the refusal to accept our mortality—a fundamental but nearly invisible pathology, baked right into the human condition—is the literal cause of all evil in the world … This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.
In response, Becker contends, we make heroes of famous people and cling fanatically to the ideas of religion, nationalism, sports teams, alma maters, and other group loyalties. Becker also argues that while deifying our heroes and social structures may ameliorate our existential dread, it also leads to prejudice, inequality, and war—our attraction to celebrities and ideologies is a double-edge sword. But all of this emanates from our desire to transcend death, and this is why we feel grief when kings or presidents or celebrities die—it reminds us of the existential dread we all feel but don’t want to talk about.
Finocchiaro concludes by talking about his own death in an honest and moving way.
Something I don’t like to admit about myself, except in the company of very close and trusted relations, is that over the past few years I have become increasingly obsessed with the prospect of death, and regularly consumed by the terror of it.
As the influence of my parents’ Catholicism has ebbed over time and drifted into the resignation of a mostly unspoken atheism, the gravity of that change has slowly come into focus: Someday I will be dead, and my subjective self lost forever. That same fact holds true for all of us, and eventually for the prospect for any life, anywhere. Over time, the universe will eventually rend itself apart, piece by piece, one final prolonged act of atomic torsion borne out over the course of eons. When all is said and done, we won’t just be gone; any trace of us will as well.
I have stated my own desire to live forever—to experience infinite being, consciousness, and bliss—in many posts and in my most recent book on the meaning of life. As I’ve said many times I believe that death is an ultimate evil and should be optional. Thus we should strive to enhance and preserve human and post-human consciousness. I also agree that the fear of death is the source of much of the evil in the world. I do recognize that this desire for immortality may be narcissistic, and that we do best to overcome the fear of death by realizing that we are not that important and that life will go on without us. We need to allow the walls of our ego to recede as Bertrand Russell taught me long ago. Still death is such a waste of consciousness, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to be resigned to our extinction, to nothingness.
I’ll finish with a moving quote by that wonderful African-American novelist James Baldwin. It captures some of the deepest feeling I have about 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.[i]
[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).