Lecture delivered to the South African Association of Analytic Psychology on 20 September 2016
The opening picture depicts the scene of the weighing of the heart from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. You can see the deceased is being led by Anubis, the guardian and protector of the dead, into the chamber of Osiris, to be judged. Anubis then weighs the heart of the deceased against a feather – that is the feather of Ma’at – while Thoth, the scribe god, records the result. Ma’at is the all-encompassing concept of truth, justice, order and harmony against which the heart or spirit of the deceased is measured.
The symbolism of the image is powerful. Ammit, the devourer (part lion, hippopotamus and crocodile) waits to eat the heart if it is judged not worthy. And to be found righteous, the heart must weigh lighter than the feather of truth.
So our question here this evening is what is that feather of truth when it comes to dying? Indeed, psychologically-speaking, what does it mean to die? And why is so difficult to stare into the face of death? Why is it the we struggle so in our attempts to find meaning in death? I am sure I do not need to convince you that the most common response to the reality of death is denial, and when we cannot help but be confronted by death, overwhelming anxiety follows. Why is this and what can we do to get to the point where we are able to leave this mortal existence one day with hearts that are as light as feather?
This question is posed beautifully in this video clip of Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Canada.
I am sure we have all witnessed or felt this “wretched anxiety” that Jenkinson speaks of. I remember very clearly when I was confronted by this monster. I was helping to care for my father-in-law as he lay on his deathbed, dying of cancer. As we all became adept at the caring routine and began to accept the reality of his impending death, I felt completely calm and in control. Consciously I thought to myself I had this death thing all figured out and under control.
Then, two nights before he passed away, I had a dream, a nightmare. I was in my very first bedroom that I slept in till the age of about 12. I was in bed, it was pitch dark and I was alone. I sensed a malevolent force outside the bedroom door so I jumped up out of bed and ran to slam the door closed. But this invisible monster wedged the door open. After pushing the door open completely it grabbed me and started flinging me around the room like a rag doll; against the ceiling, against the walls, and on to the floor. I woke up shaking and drenched in sweat.
It was immediately clear to me that this force was death itself showing me that I did not have it figured out or under control!
While my father-in-law did pass away peacefully two days later and we held a beautiful service celebrating his life out of the same little country church he had been baptised in (and that I was privileged to lead) that dream is still fresh in my memory. And during the time I worked at St Luke’s dealing daily with death, I never for a moment allowed myself to take the enormity of death for granted.
The denial of death is an almost universal phenomenon. In a book with that title, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, Ernest Becker makes a powerful argument that this denial is an inevitable result of humanity’s basic narcissism.
In other words, as self-conscious beings – that is animals that are conscious of being conscious – we cannot help but be hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. We are the most real reality to ourselves and it seems simply inconceivable that this consciousness will one day be extinguished. That is why a soldier will go into battle feeling sorry for the fellow next to him who will probably die because in his heart he doesn’t feel that he will die.
While St Augustine argued that this self-centeredness was, at root, mankind’s sinful nature, his corruptio totalis, Becker argues it is simply the evolution of an organism that has to protect its integrity. He writes:
If you took a blind and dumb organism and gave it self-consciousness and a name, if you made it stand out of nature and know consciously that it was unique, then you would have narcissism. In man, physio-chemical identity and the sense of power and activity have become conscious.
Moreover, to have a sense of self-worth and agency, to find purpose and meaning in one’s life, one has to be the hero of one’s own story – as Joseph Campbell taught so well. But few actively plan for the final act of their hero’s journey. For the very idea that the journey will end is too much to bear.
So, as self-conscious narcissists, we are stuck with an existential dilemma. On the one hand we feel we are, as the Psalmist wrote, a little lower than angels, crowned with glory and honour, and made rulers over the works of God’s hands. Indeed, that we are imbued with divinity itself, made in the image of God, inheriting God’s immortality too.
And yet, we are trapped in these mortal bodies, brother Ass, as St Francis called his body. And the person who did the most in confronting us with this was that master of suspicion, Freud. The profound truth in his theory is not his sexual drive theory – which his first followers like Adler and Jung soon realized was overblown at best and a dogmatic fixation at worst – but rather the disgust and guilt, and concomitant repression, that we feel at our physicality. Becker describes it like this:
Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept.
So the Oedipus complex is not so much a sexual obsession with the mother and guilty desire to kill the father, but rather a response to the ambivalence of our animal condition – to put it bluntly, our shitting, bleeding, fucking existence. Norman Brown put’s it like this:
The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God … it plainly exhibits infantile narcissism perverted by the flight from death.
Our basic problem then, is that we are angels that shit. Or little gods that die.
So we devise strategies to fend off the awareness of our own mortality and suppress the related existential anxiety. We consciously identify with our divinity and repress our animal condition.
One could argue that these immortality projects are at the root of all human religious and cultural systems, going all the way back to the ancient Egyptians with their incredible preoccupation with death and the afterlife, or the Mayans and their sacrificial systems, or the Hindu Vedas that teach about the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
At their best, these cultural-religious systems should help us reconcile the opposites of life and death, immortal and mortal, divine and human, but unfortunately distorted or immature versions of these mythic systems often end up doing the opposite.
For example, it was Jung that pointed out a central problem with the symbol of the Christian cross. The horizontal beam of the cross creeps higher and higher towards the heavens, leaving behind what he called the chthonic spirit of our animal or subterranean nature. In other words, the true Christ symbol should be a cross that is completely symmetrical. If the mystery of Christ is that he was both completely divine and completely human – a union of the opposites – then his divinity cannot be raised above his humanity.
In practice, what this means is that many Christians become preoccupied with heaven, holiness, and all the purely spiritual things beyond and outside the messy reality of their actual, physical lives. They claim they do not fear death at all for it is simply the shedding of the pesky body. But when they are actually confronted with death, this edifice begins to crumble.
I remember a family I worked with, in which the 40-year old mother was dying of breast cancer. They were very religious, and when the reality of her disease became apparent they fervently starting praying for divine intervention and healing. When her body started giving in she became genuinely delusional refusing to accept that she was dying despite the obvious evidence. Her husband, meanwhile, seemed to realize the gravity of her illness. However, when she became pre-terminal, she finally accepted the reality that she was dying, and I encouraged her to speak directly to her husband to tell him that she now knew this. Up to that point they had been unable to speak openly to each other about what was happening.
When she told him she was dying, he refused to hear it and even got aggressive. And unfortunately, his need to deny to himself what was happening became so severe that shortly after her death he had a complete psychotic breakdown.
I blame the immature and death-denying nature of the faith they had been taught.
Even the violent nature of immature religion – in which I would include all forms of fundamentalism – can be explained by this denial of death. Otto Rank wrote:
The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.
This truth is also at the heart of the mimetic theory of René Girard, which explains how the scapegoating of the other psychologically relieves the anxiety of chaos and disorder—which at its root is the fear of non-being and death.
But these immortality systems are not just found in organised religion. Becker powerfully argues that Freud himself tried to structure the psychoanalytic community as an immortality project. Hence his anxiety when Jung, amongst others, but especially Jung his anointed heir, broke from him.
In contemporary post-religious society when people are not anaesthetising themselves with shopping, alcohol, Facebook, or prescription medicine, a common immortality system is the romantic ideal of love. That is, the idea that a total erotic union with the beloved will ensure an everlasting bond that can survive death, and therefore a measure of immortality.
And there is a partial truth here. Because the acceptance of the reality of death does lie in the union of opposites, or reuniting that which was split. But fusing yourself with someone else you think can ‘save’ you won’t do it. It is a different kind of unification we are talking about here.
The Franciscan priest and author, Fr Richard Rohr has written powerfully but simply about the four splits that necessarily occur as the child develops. This process of splitting and repressing – that is splitting off the bad or threatening from the good or comforting – is, I am sure, well-known to you all, especially from the writing of Melanie Klein and in Object Relations psychology. But I like the way Rohr applies it to our topic at hand.
He explains that the first split is the splitting of self from others as the infant becomes self-conscious. It is, of course, vital to the development of a healthy ego and a separate self-sense required for the conceptualisation of personal identity, but leads to what Rohr calls the masculine principle of competition and the feminine principle of envy.
The second split is splitting the mind from the body. As Freud describes so well, during the anal phase of sexual development, the child must learn to gain mental and physical control over its excretions, and this is facilitated by being inculcated with disgust towards bodily fluids and excrement. This eventually leads to an over-identification with, and over-evaluation of, the mind, and a denial of the animal body.
The third split is the separating of the good self from the bad self. As Donald Winnicott described, this leads to the development of an acceptable but false self. Or in Jungian terms, splitting and repressing the disavowed shadow from the self and the acceptable persona that is presented to the world.
And the fourth split, which in a certain sense encompasses them all, is splitting off death from life. Resulting in the myriad immortality systems I have described.
The overcoming of these splits, or the reintegration and union of these opposites, is what is ultimately required to overcome the denial of death. In other words, it is by fully confronting and accepting our nature as angels that shit, that we can learn to bear the anxiety of our finitude.
As I am able to let go of my ego identity and the illusion of separateness, I begin to realise not only am I connected to everything and everyone, I also contain within myself both the masculine and the feminine, the animus and the anima. In theological terms I can also say, I am, like Christ, both divine and human. It is in the tension of these opposites that my creative response to life and death lies. For as Hegel wrote, “contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality.”
Second, in realising that my true self is both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – or simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner) as I was taught in good, reformed theology – that my disavowed shadow is as much ‘me’ as the persona I project to the world, I am able to become the unique contribution to the world that is this whole, but ephemeral ‘me’. This whole self is true to both my transcendent or divine nature, and my chthonic or animal nature. I believe this is central to what Jungians would call the process of individuation.
Third, I fully inhabit and own my body. I am my body, not just my mind. Indeed it is illness that forces most people to really become their bodies. If you ask those who work in palliative care they will tell you the biggest struggles are not just with pain, but with constipation! You spend your whole life learning to control it and keep it in, but when you are terminally ill the struggle is to let go! Psychologically-speaking I do not think that is a coincidence.
Lastly, we need to overcome the split between life and death. Death is part of life, and life is part of death. Throughout the ages, philosophers and sages have understood this. Socrates is reported to have said that, “the true philosopher practices death,” while Nietzsche wrote:
Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.
Rohr says that these splits are most often overcome or unified through either great suffering or great love. The spiritual practices of contemplative prayer or meditation certainly experientially prepare us for this too. But facing terminal illness – and this is the gift of the dying process – is often our last chance to do so.
In The Red Book Jung wrote:
The knowledge of death came to me that night, from the dying that engulfs the world. I saw how we live towards death, how the swaying golden wheat sinks together under the scythe of the reaper like a smooth wave on a sea beach. He who abides in common life becomes aware of death with fear. Thus the fear of death drives him toward singleness. He does not live there, but he becomes aware of life and is happy since in singleness he is one who becomes, and has overcome death.
And lastly, James Hillman:
…working at the death problem is both a dying from the world with its illusory sustaining hope that there is no death, not really, and a dying into life, as a fresh and vital concern with essentials. Because living and dying in this sense imply each other, any act which holds off death prevents life. ‘How’ to die means nothing less than ‘how’ to live.
When we can truly and experientially hold and unify these opposites, we can let go of our immortality systems. We are no longer compelled to frantically search for the hidden meaning in death. Rather, through the acceptance of death as a natural part of life, we realise that it is, indeed, death that gives life to life. Whether your symbolic representation for expressing this is self-sacrificial death and resurrection, karmic death and rebirth, or simply that you become food for worms that stimulate new, organic growth; they all express something of this free, creative and loving giving of the self to both life and death, and thus also giving meaning to our lives and our deaths.