How our incapacity to cope with the reality of death drives us into a psychological dead-end

While it’s easy to mock those who are so readily whipped into mass hysteria by sensationalist media and over-reaction by foolish politicians, the COVID-19 event has exposed a more serious human pathology than the mindless over-purchasing of toilet rolls and face masks.

Forget the fact that the vast majority of people who contract the virus will be either asymptomatic or experience something akin to a common cold; forget also that unlike regular flu which kills around 500,000 people each year, C-19 spares children and takes only the very old and those with compromised immune systems and thus so far has killed fewer than 2% of those who succumb to regular flu each year. Forget also the fact that data from Western countries seems to be indicating a morbidity rate just a little higher than our annual regular flu.

This is all data, and we humans lack brains capable of dealing with data. We are influenced mainly by anecdote and emotion and thus facts and reason have little role to play in human affairs. Our ape-brains evolved in conditions very unlike those pertaining today and so we have no cognitive resources by means of which to understand large-scale events. We’re akin to snails trying to understand integral calculus: for the most part, the challenge is beyond our ability.

So much is already known, and the consequences are predictable.

We can make jokes about isolating our Corona beer bottles so they don’t infect our Heineken. We can smile at pictures of empty supermarket shelves, stripped bare by those unable to discern the difference between media-induced terror and a low-grade infection. In a few weeks those who stockpiled toilet rolls will pretend they weren’t helpless in the grip of mindless fear, and we’ll resume our ordinary lives.

What seems to me to be far more serious, however, is what the C-19 hysteria has revealed about our capacity for dealing with the most ordinary event in existence: death.

On Facebook I read posts from my various friends around the world and they all seem to be indicating the same thing: we’ve lost our ability to process the inevitable fact that all human life must end.

One example will suffice to illustrate the general trend. I have a friend whose mother is eighty-eight. Although he’s scientifically trained and relatively unconcerned about his own health and that of his children and his spouse, he’s absolutely terrified that his mother will be infected. To that end he’s castigating all those who (in his opinion) aren’t taking the C-19 panic sufficiently seriously. His belief is that the entire Western world should self-isolate until the disease has passed.

Yes, that’s correct: every single person in the West should lock themselves indoors for at least the next fourteen days, in order that his mother’s risk of infection should be minimized.

While I can understand the feelings of those who do not wish to lose loved ones— and after all, who among us is immune to grief at the loss of those closest to us? — it is nevertheless an insane reaction.

At eighty-eight, my friend’s mother has lived longer than 99% of all humans who have ever lived since our species came into existence. She has enjoyed a life of relative luxury and security. What more could be asked?

So why is my friend, and so many like him, reacting in this way?

Since the end of World War II we’ve increasingly pushed death out of the public domain. Nine out of ten people in most Western nations will die in a hospital, in an anonymous bed, out of sight. Our TV shows and movies continually show people being killed and then coming back to life. Our super-heroes are invulnerable to the shocks and injuries that in reality would kill someone in seconds. We no longer even have obituary columns to read now that we’re all online.

In short, we’ve completely lost our capacity for coping with death.

We’ve lost all sense of perspective. Instead of seeing death as the inevitable price we pay for this astonishing gift of life, we look to push it ever-further away. Hucksters like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil make their money promising that magic technologies will free us from death and permit everyone to be immortal and we lap up their empty claims. Even those who feel they may one day be able to accept the inevitability of their own demise can’t accept the inevitability of the demise of those they love. Surely, with enough effort and enough care, surely…?

But what do we imagine? That our loved ones will always and forever be here? That we should be able, simply because we now lack the emotional resources to cope with loss, to keep alive indefinitely everyone we love?

The two huge lessons we should learn from this current panic are (a) how easy it is to stampede billions into hysteria thanks to the power of 7/24 always-on technologies, and (b) how we’ve apparently lost our capacity for coping with death.

Unfortunately, it is likely we’ll learn neither of these lessons because we’ll remain fixated on sensationalist nonsense instead of pausing to introspect. After C-19 there will be new sensations to grab our eyeballs, new airplane crashes and wars and minor acts of terrorism that will be puffed up into cataclysmic proportions and fed to our uncritical minds. We’ll continue to bob up and down on the waves of media-driven noise like helpless fragments of cork afloat on an endless ocean.

Yet perhaps a few will stop a while and consider the inherent madness of acting as if death can forever be forestalled. Perhaps a few of us will begin to think about how we need to discover ways to cope with death rather than to continue running blindly away from something that can never be evaded. And perhaps we need to think about the costs we impose on those we love when we seek to extend their lives by a matter of days or weeks by means of highly intrusive medical treatments that destroy their quality of life in return for temporarily making us feel fractionally better because it gives us the illusion of life carrying on.

I don’t expect this article to be popular, and I’m confident I’ll be criticized for failing to understand the seriousness of the C-19 outbreak and of being insufficiently empathetic towards those whose elderly relatives are at risk. After all, we defend our beliefs and behaviors to the very end, no matter how irrational or harmful they may be. History is unambiguous on this point.

But really, aside from a few wealthy media barons and the countless journalist drones eking our a living by obediently hyping every new sensation, who benefits from our incapacity to cope with the inevitability of death? In the end, we’re all harmed: those loved ones for whose health we fear, our immediate families who likewise are riven with unnecessary suffering, and ourselves as we scurry from one end to the other of our self-imposed mental box.

Our inability to accept mortality is, in the end, a far more dangerous problem than any over-hyped virus. Every viral infection ultimately burns itself out as our immune systems adapt and defeat the invader.

But our attitudes remain, which leaves us emotionally and intellectually vulnerable to every new media sensation, which means that long after C-19 has been lost to memory we will still be fearful, we will still be making poor medical decisions, and we will still be just a sensationalist puff away from the next mass panic.

Pretending we can push back the inevitability of death is no way to live.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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