To Cope With Eco Anxiety, I Had to Come to Terms With Death
Too many people ignore and avoid conversations about death, but they're vital to changing the way we live.
I’m here to break it to you now: You are going to die.
Yes, it’s true. One day—very likely in a moment you do not anticipate—your heart will stop beating or your brain will cease to function. It might be a long, drawn-out affair, or it might be sudden. It might happen when you are asleep. Someone might do it to you. There’s really no way to tell how we will die, and for many of us, this inevitability is like: Nope don’t wanna talk about it. No thank you!
There are many reasons to fear death. I don’t need to give you a list because you’ve already pictured at least ten reasons in your mind while reading so far. But the most succinct explanation is by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: annihilation.
What a spooky word. It sounds like something out of a horror franchise. Death: The Final Annihilation. But that’s because it’s accurate. Whether you believe in God or reincarnation or karma or none of it, this body you have now isn’t going to be here forever. It’s going to grow old, wither, wrinkle, sag and slow the fuck down. It’s got a time limit. And what happens after we pass is highly debatable. Understandably, this makes quite a few humans feel like I’m gonna put that shit way out of my mind and not think about it.
Americans, I have learned, are very good at not thinking about it.
What COVID-19 and Solastalgia Have in Common
Our cultural death avoidance has reared its head mightily during the COVID-19 pandemic, to devastating consequences. Former President Donald Trump refused to wear a mask for months, downplayed the severity of the virus and inspired countless Americans to practice their self-proclaimed “civil rights” by emulating the commander-in-chief in public spaces. The result was, not surprisingly, numerous “superspreader” events from church gatherings to election rallies to family weddings. In some sort of bizarro inversion of Buddhism’s meditation on death as a means to live fully, many Americans have instead chosen to ignore death as a means to “live fully.”
The parallels to the response to COVID-19 and the dissonance toward climate change are resounding. The coronavirus is not an isolated event born out of randomness. Experts have warned about pandemics for decades and were largely ignored. Human encroachment upon the natural world likely brought the bat that carried the virus to the Wuhan “wet market” where it was purchased, consumed and then infected a human host.
Rather than examine our interconnectedness, our former POTUS deflected blame to China, referring to the virus as the “kung-flu,” propagating anti-Asian sentiments that have led to a rise in violent attacks against Asian-Americans in the past few weeks.
Deflection and blame have been chosen over investigation and self-inquiry.
Death Shouldn’t Be Avoided as a Conversation Topic
I know something of death because I’ve approached it head-on before. I lost an uncle to suicide when I was 14, and only months later I came dangerously close to ending my own life as well. Ever since that first encounter with death, talking about suicide has been a means of therapy for me, exposing its root causes to the light. I learned quickly that the notion of choosing death is laced with cultural shame, even if you do not actually attempt to take your own life.
The mere fact that I gave up on my desire to live in thought was simply too much for some of my loved ones. To this day, they cannot speak to me about it. The topic has been erased from our shared conversations. If I do attempt to bring it up—as means to create a better understanding between us—they swiftly pivot to another topic.
Climate Change Anxiety Is Really About Death
The best definition I have ever read of suicide was a “misplaced desire for change.” To me, the impulse to end one’s own life—or in some cases, the intense desire to simply not exist—is a deeply human feeling. It is meant to be examined, not avoided. Many of us experience moments of profound bleakness in our lives that we fear are permanent. Many of us long to escape our suffering, to be jettisoned somewhere else, to some kind of imaginary realm that we believe to be free of pain. In the worst of moments, death can seem like the only path to this place of relief.
Speaking about my feelings saved my life. Acknowledging death as a presence in my thoughts freed me from what felt like insurmountable shame. It began a process of self-examination, and also of extricating myself from the isolation of my own experience. I recognized that my death would affect countless others, and that I was part of a greater human ecology. My life does not exist on its own. It has ripple effects far and wide, beyond what I can even see.
COVID-19 Has Given Me a New Appreciation for Life
In February, the U.S. reached a milestone: 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19. The number was reported clinically in my newsfeed: There was no collective moment of silence, no speech from President Joe Biden about the need for a communal effort to save lives. We speak more of opening malls and restaurants before mourning the dead. We speak of death as a statistic, not as an experience that deserves attention and empathy.
When I read these numbers, I make it a point to observe the impulse to turn away. I take the time to examine the grief that arises when I consider the depth of this avoidable tragedy, and the dissonance I feel from our leaders. I look at death directly and I remind myself that I am grateful to be alive. I remind myself that I am existing in an intricate ecosystem, sensitive to the actions and movements and choices of every being.
Rather than paralyze me with fear, these thoughts connect me to an invisible stream, a higher power that infuses me with strength to go on when my thoughts turn bleak. We are meant to acknowledge death, not so it rules us, but so we view every life around us—including our own—as precious and vital. It is up to us to make this an everyday ethic, a resistance against those in power dismissing our own humanity. To face death, I believe, is to demand our inherent right to exist, and our right to love and be loved. Always.