Two pieces of news have got me thinking about death (again). Most immediately, mere hours, I learned that a heroine and icon Carrie Fisher joined the stunning ranks of Great Voices who didn’t make it out of 2016. The other I’ve been sitting with for a while: the confirmation with a second, more robust trial that psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, is a cure for “existential anxiety.” In other words, a cure for the fear of death. The latter is great news. The former is deeply sad, but we’ll all get through it.
You see, I am not the kind of futurist who thinks that indefinite life extension is desirable, let alone a good idea for society. I think that death is necessary, and that fear of death is natural. Grief is a compound emotion, the elements of which vary for each moment it’s experienced and each person who experiences it.
For myself, grief is primarily comprised of loss, fear, and occasionally another tricksy secondary emotion, regret.
Loss is the kind of pain that’s unavoidable. People, ideas, ecosystems, species come and go in a world of dynamic non-equilibrium. The world would be more overwhelming and less functional without death and decay.
Fear and regret fall into the field of emotions that can get away from themselves, hanging around far beyond when they convey useful information about the world. They must be faced, managed, mitigated, prevented, and acted upon effectively. In Carrie Fisher’s words in her most recent Guardian advice column, ” Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side.” Poignant right now, eh?
But what does it take to move through a feeling? How can we envision what will meet us on the other side clearly enough to make it through to that future? And what scale of socio-cultural process is appropriate to help us as individuals-in-context do that?
What it takes, for me, is the five steps outlined (though incompletely elaborated) in my last blog post: breathing, moving, feeling, connecting, and acting. Most of the time we don’t slow down enough to realize we’re doing all of these things. Those of use who deal with mental illnesses skip steps, and thus don’t make it all the way through. Carrie Fisher, as one of many inspiring mental health advocates, called on us again and again to connect: with our family, with our friends, with professionals, and with people who share nothing more than a similar brokenness.
But feeling, despite what many psychologists aligned with the secular mindfulness movement insist, is not something that exists only in the present tense. Feeling is about memory and expectation, and how the tension between expecting and remembering shape suffering that makes moments seem like lifetimes. We experience the death of celebrities in the context of a year in which we’ve lost many, and also experienced political whiplash. These celebrities would be anonymous if they had not shaped childhoods and parenthoods of so many. Truly feeling deep things like grief requires courage and patience and perspective. Allowing feeling to motivate effective connecting and acting requires vision.
Reading the Johns Hopkins and New York University studies on psilocybin and existential anxiety, and the many commentaries on them, I think magic mushrooms fortify this sense of vision, courage, and perspective. Participants spoke about finding vivid imagery to confront cancer, addiction, and death. This imagery gave them fuel for talk therapy. (If there are any documentary film makers reading, this would be the most epic psychedelic documentary ever made. Make it!) The combination of single high doses of hallucinagens and talk therapy relieved anxiety (fear + expectation) of death. While most psychiatric medicines focus on curbing overactive pattern recognition, too intense feeling, and visions of things that aren’t there, these studies show us a different approach: increase the strength of vision and combine it with supportive connection to make it through justifiably intense feelings, like fear.
So we have an individual experience coupled with a therapeutic diad. That sounds like an appropriate way to work through a personal fear of death for terminal cancer patients, and possibly applicable to the grief of their immediate families. But what about the cultural grief millions of people have been feeling this year?
There has been much hand–wringing and defending and analyzing the nature of public, broadcast grief this year. Whether you’re mourning Mohammed Ali, Prince, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, or another of the 60 odd public voices we lost, there is a social process of grief going on that is the natural counterpart to the social processes that create celebrities in the first place. You have artists who have successfully performed their feeling with skill and luck. We have collectively rewarded them with some measure of fame and fortune. How can we process their loss in anything other than a collective, public manner? If we don’t, we may regret it.