Mortality and Death: Is Avoidance the best call?

The chapter we read today (for outside readers, PTSD from “Crazy Like Us” by Ethan Watters) had a bunch of really provocative thought topics, including and not limited to the treatment of PTSD in the US, our imperialistic ideology, treatment of death and mortality in Asiatic countries, the scientific method, the East/West split, and how much wood COULD the woodchuck chuck? Clearly I have opinions on all of that, but I thought I’d extend the idea of avoidant treatment of trauma to a really applicable article I found on

This article summarizes a talk gave by a cancer researcher, Doctor John Wynn. In it he argues, in short, that it is the fact of our mortality that gives our lives meaning. We strive and succeed because we have a strict deadline. It puts our accomplishments in context, and deepens our human experience with loss and tragedy juxtoposed with the beauty of every day life. In effect, it defines our humanity.

Oh man that’s deep stuff.

It connects to the chapter in that such an understanding of mortality only comes with deep spection – not introspection or extrospection, necessarily, but contemplation and inner peace. In a situation where people avoid talking about and thinking about death and dying, do they gain this perspective? I wonder. I wonder deeply. I’m not aiming this at the couple of examples of avoidance given in the chapter solely; I think that deep thought is an excrutiatingly rare practice worldwide, independent of culture. Hell, I think that America (the West, for people who fully subscribe to Watters’ theses) is the WORST at confronting issues of this magnitude.

What we want to do in America is blot out personal problems by watching reality TV and hilarious YouTube videos. Perhaps the way that Eastern cultures go about it is simply not discussing issues at all, or maybe by diluting suffering through togetherness.

In the end, though, I think that we should all try to achieve self-actualization. Don’t hide from things that make you uncomfortable; confront them and deal with them and become stronger by that process. If it’s a traumatic episode, it is perhaps more saliently necessary to deal with, but I would argue that meaning can arise from the unflinching consideration of any topic considered depressing – to come back to the CNN article, an excellent example is mortality. From the chapter, I would advocate towards directness of consideration of painful topics, for children and adults alike. In America, I would advocate towards introspection and increased determination to really think through each and every opinion and belief, which is something that we do far too infrequently.

I need to connect self-actualization to neuroscience, you say? It connects to PTSD in obvious ways, and to the understanding of our place as discrete selves ensconced in the vessel of a human brain and body. It is, in short, a fundamental topic in terms of discussing mental health and humanity.

P.S. This seems like it might contradict certain ideas of Buddhism (John), but I feel like the path to self-actualization is the first step towards formlessness. You have to understand yourself before you can let yourself go. Follow that three fold path to get to Nirvana, huh?

TEDMED: Mortality gives life meaning

One thought on “Mortality and Death: Is Avoidance the best call?

  1. Although we might have argued a bit in class (about something totally different…what are basic and universal vs. culturally embedded truths) I have to really agree with this blog post. I feel so strongly that mortality is what gives meaning to our lives and cultures differ so much in their views on life and death (reincarnation for example!). People experience how true it is that you only realize what you have/want until it is gone; while people usually apply this phrase to relationships, it’s the just as applicable to our actual lives. We need to feel the brevity of life to truly understand why it’s so special. We need to confront death because it’s inevitable. Why are we here? Is there something more afterwards? These are unanswerable questions and so all we can do is live in the moment with the knowledge that these moments will not last forever. I think that this is important to keep in mind regarding the treatment of disorders–trying to get patients to view there lives in this way has the potential to be helpful. It’s not innate for us to always think about our death, that would be no way to live, but to think about it sometimes…well, that can really add to our lives.

    One of my favorite quotes by Emerson applies pretty perfectly:

    “What would be the use of immortality to a person who cannot use well a half an hour.”


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