- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Our capacity to survive as humans is by no means assured. Virtually every species that ever existed has become extinct. Matters are not helped much by our special infirmities; cruelty wears a distinctly human face. Not the least bit sobered by an expanding technology of mega-destruction, humankind generally remains unashamed to revel in war and terror. This is true when even the wildest of other animals can sometimes coexist in conspicuously less murderous habitats.

As a species, we sometimes take great delight in the suffering of others, in what was described on these pages by Tony Blankley as schadenfreude (“The age of schadenfreude,” June 8).

What exactly is wrong with us, and what can we do now to avoid collective self-annihilation? “Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” Herein lies much of the problem. What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in certain instances be denial. Yet, a greatly expanded awareness of our own personal mortality may well prove to be the last best chance we have to endure together.

All things move in the midst of death, but what does it feel like to “almost die?” What can we learn from experiencing “near death” and emerging, whole, to live “again?” Can we learn something that might even benefit the greater human community, that might move us well beyond schadenfreude? Exactly how stark, how porous, are the boundaries that demarcate the kingdom of life and the kingdom of death?

Death “happens” to all, but our awareness of this is usually blunted by delusion. To acknowledge that we are all just creatures of biology is more than most of us can ever bring forward to consciousness. There is “normally” a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of dying people. It is as if dying were something reserved only to others, as if it is an affliction that can never darken our own lives. That we generally cling tenaciously to various promises of redemption is not, by itself, a species-survival issue. It becomes a problem only when these promises are extended to some segments of humanity while being simultaneously denied to others.

What happens when we feel our life’s blood exiting its proper vascular channels and shutting down our vital signs of aliveness? What does it feel like when our body, our heart, our soul — all so delicately and intangibly interwoven — seem to betray our carefully sustained expectations of an earthly continuity? Can we ever really accept what is happening to us, that death is real, palpable and personal?

Not long ago I had a very close encounter with my own death. Suffering massive internal bleeding, I experienced “hemorrhagic shock.” With a blood pressure that plummeted to 40/20 and a gastric cavity filled with blood, doctors failed several times to staunch the giant bleed. Finally, however, skillful physicians were able to cauterize the wound and ensure that this would not be “my time.”

Dying in a hospital emergency room is an ugly and unheroic death, a death less welcome than almost any other. This thought remained on my mind until the very last moment of consciousness, but an even more disturbing emotion plagued my then-disappearing moments: a feeling of total, profound, relentless, immutable helplessness. I understood for the first time not only that death could really happen to me, that death was immanent, but also that this death could be imminent and would have to be kept at bay by others. For the first time I understood that there was nothing, absolutely nothing — literally nothing — that I could do to save myself.

This was not a pleasing awareness, but — still — it was enormously important. Men and women may learn from such an awareness that we humans are not only unimaginably fragile, but also that we are crucially interdependent. We cannot go it alone on this planet. We must all understand how we may die in order to more fully understand how we should live.

It is not for us to choose when to die. In the end, our words, our faces, our countenance will likely be far beyond any conscious choice or consideration. But we can choose to recognize our shared common fate — a recognition that would carry with it an extraordinary collective gift.

We humans are substantially the same, but our most profound similarity is that we must all die. Whatever our sharply different views on what happens after death, the mortality that we share represents nothing less than the last best chance we still have to coexist peacefully on this manifestly suicidal planet. We can care for one another, but only when we first acknowledge a common anguish. Compassion can never spring forth analytically from reason or science; it must always be felt.

In the end, a keen awareness of a common fate is our only real medicine against war and terrorism. In this spirit, only a person who understands within himself the broader humanity of which he or she is composed will ever be able to embrace true compassion. Perhaps we are made for oblivion, but the sooner we can come to terms with the finiteness of each individual life — with its personal transience here on Earth — the better our chances to dispel schadenfreude and to survive as a species.

Louis Rene Beres is the author of nine books on international relations and international law. He currently is examining linkages between human death fears and world politics.


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