O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?
(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)
Can it be true that if someone threatens your worldview it reminds you of your mortality? And the same with self-esteem? Does it explain why a sociopath could kill someone for not showing respect and why one society will seek to destroy another’s culture? Such extreme reactions seem to require an explanation at least as extreme.
Maybe I’ve found one – or maybe not.
A week or so ago I dropped the glass of my cafetière into the sink with predictable results. It died in pieces rather than in peace.
I wasn’t too upset. It was only the second time I’ve ever smashed a cafetière. I coped reasonably well for that week, making coffee in a plastic jug and trapping the grains in a tea strainer when I poured it into my mug. Not much grief there really. It would have been slightly embarrassing if we’d had guests, but none materialised in that time fortunately.
I kept popping into cook shops looking without success for a metal cafetière, until finally I picked up a cheap glass one – the kind that doesn’t let you take the glass out of the plastic frame. In fact there is a clear warning on the bottom telling you not to do so. My half-hearted effort to do exactly what I shouldn’t in the shop was fortunately unsuccessful.
I was standing in the kitchen making my first cup of coffee with this reincarnated cafetière when an explosion of relief and exhilaration burst inside my head. No, it was not because I had a working cafetière again. It was because a penny of insight, which had been dropping from a great height for what might well have been years, chose finally to hit the ground of consciousness. I was so relieved I was close to tears.
Why there and why then I have simply no idea, except that I have been reading constantly this last couple of weeks about death, psychosis and spirituality. Oh, and I had dreamt about my father the previous night: as much of my poetry shows this is something which could have helped trigger the insight that followed later in the day.
Put perhaps too simply, I not only continued to understand that most if not all mental health problems have crucially important spiritual dimensions, but that there is a core element of that which is particularly important. Maybe I was so moved because this core element has been a lifelong companion. Perhaps I was so blind to it for so long because I was too close to see it, or else it was too familiar to be noticed.
What is this element?
My lifelong companion and sometime muse.
It’s not the only factor behind these spiritual dimensions, but it’s a crucial one. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – pp 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.
I didn’t like their book much when I had finished reading it well over a week ago now. Too reductionist, I thought. But now something had changed. My unconscious had clearly been doing its own thinking since I finished reading it, and come to a very different assessment of their work.
Yes, they seem to rubbish religion at times, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.
We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.
Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.
I prefer selfhood for reasons that will become fully apparent in subsequent posts, I hope. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life and life support within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.
They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.
In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):
One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.
They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’
In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point. More on that next Thursday.