Staring at the Sun is a profoundly encouraging approach to the universal issue of mortality.
Self-awareness is a supreme gift
A treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die.
For some of us the fear of death manifests only indirectly, either as generalized unrest or masqueraded as another psychological symptom; other individuals experience an explicit and conscious stream of anxiety about death; and for some of us the fear of death erupts into terror that negates all happiness and fulfillment.
My personal experience and clinical work have taught me that anxiety about dying waxes and wanes throughout the life cycle.
Children at an early age cannot help but note the glimmerings of mortality surrounding them–dead leaves, insects and pets, disappearing grandparents, grieving parents, endless acres of cemetery tombstones.
The fear of death ordinarily goes underground from about six to puberty, the same years Freud designated as the period of latent sexuality.
Then, during adolescent, death anxiety erupts in force: teenagers often become preoccupied with death; a few consider suicide.
As the years go by, adolescent death concerns are pushed aside by the two major life tasks of young adulthood: pursuing a career and beginning a family.
Then, three decades later, as children leave home and the end points of professional careers loom, the midlife crisis bursts upon us, and death anxiety once again erupts with great force.
Why, you may ask, take on this unpleasant, frightening subject? Why stare into the sun?
Death does itch. It itches all the time; it is always with us, scratching at some inner door, whirring softly, barely audibly, just under the membrane of consciousness.
I feel strongly–as a man who will himself die one day in not-too-distant future and as a psychiatrist who has spent decades dealing with death anxiety–that confronting death allows us, not to open some noisome Pandora’s box, but to reenter life in a richer, more compassionate manner.
The awakening experience
One of the best known characters in literature is Ebenezer Scrooge, the grasping, isolated, mean-spirited old man in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Yet something happened to Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story–a remarkable transformation.
What happened? What fueled Scrooge’s transformation?
Not his conscience. Not the warmth of Yule cheer. Instead, it was a form of existential shock therapy or an awakening experience.
Earlier thinkers, long before Tolstoy–since the beginning of the written word–have reminded us of the interdependence of life and death. The Stoics taught us that learning to live well is learning to die well and that, conversely, learning to die well is learning to live well. Cicero said that ‘to philosophize is to prepare for death’. St Augustine wrote, ‘ it is only in the face of death that a man’s self is born.’ Montaigne suggested that a writing studio have a good view of the cemetery in order to sharpen one’s thinking.
In these ways and in many others, great teachers down through the ages have reminded us that although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.
Complement Staring at the Sun with Before I die, I want to…