The Four Stories We Tell Ourselves About Death

Not long ago, we decided in this blog that it was “about time to think about time“, and we learned that time is basically a construction of the brain. Let’s say we had to picture that concept – in what shape would it come? Would it come out as something linear – as the ominpresent metaphor of “timelines” suggest – or more of a circular character?As a matter of fact – time is both, circle and line.

In the Medieval Ages, the circular aspect dominated: What really mattered was the recurrence of day and night, of spring, summer, autumn and winter and the specific behaviour each season required. The linear development that labels years with ascending numbers had a relatively neglectable impact on a rural community of a family of farmers. It is also the underlying circular rhythm that enables biological mechanisms as circadian clocks.

Yet, there is the undeniable other perspective – the timeline. Year dates make periods distinguishable and comparable. The gap between two points in time can be computed, and so can be the age of an object – or a person.

Let’s talk about Death: Not only Tombs and Worms and Epitaphs

The timeline imposes another principle on every human being: Once upon a time, there was a span when I wasn’t there yet, and there will be another lapse of time when I won’t be here any more. And there we have it – the concept of mortality and death.
The question is: How can something so natural and logical be so terrifying that it leads to what some philosophers call the fundamental bias of mankind: The certainty of our mortality makes us likely to believe any story that tells us we can and will live forever.

This is just one of the questions that Stephen Cave raises in his thought-provoking and witty talk at the recent TEDxBratislava conference. He guides us through the strategies that people have developed to cope with their fear of death and even introduces a general term for it: Terror Management Theory. And he concludes his reflections on what is stereotypically considered a dark, heavy topic with a wonderfully, optimistic conclusion. We won’t give his message away – but as a hint: It’s more sophisticated than YOLO.

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