A recurring dream I had throughout my childhood returned a few months ago, matured as I am and timely, as it was on the eve of my fortieth birthday. Though it was different in many ways from the dream of my youth, I recognized it immediately – an aged variant of a subliminal representation of the universal yet deeply personal struggle to coexist with the knowledge of my own death.
In childhood, beginning at age 7, the dream was this:
I’m sitting cross-legged along the side of my parents’ empty queen-size mattress, looking at it at exactly eye level. The room is dim and I’m focused only on a small, slate-gray cube resting on the edge of the bed, just inches from my face.
The cube is moving along the edge of the mattress from one end to the other so slowly I can barely tell it’s in motion. From left to right and back and forth again and again and again. Although it takes what seems an eternity to get from one end to the other, each time it does, the cube gets infinitesimally larger.
Over time, and as the cube gets bigger, it appears to be moving faster as it is only able to shift back and forth from one end of the mattress to the other. From side to side, in panicked vibrations, faster and faster and louder and louder until everything ends in blackness and a deafening silence.
I always woke from this dream with a deep sense of anxiety, terror and dread, and although I only realized it a few years ago, its meaning is quite simple – The cube is my life and its motion along a defined path representative of time, which at first moves so slowly it’s painful to bear, but over time picks up speed to a rate so fast there is no controlling or containing it. As my life expands, time races to my death.
The 40 year-old manifestation was this:
I’m in an enormous building within which all of my loved ones exist and where all of my life is lived. As the days pass, every so often and without notice, the ocean comes rushing in, crushing everything in its path and taking up almost every inch of space in which to breathe and survive. Although my loved ones and I continue to live through these occurrences, running, panicked into the small spaces allotted by luck, many around us die each time this happens.
We know that every time the ocean comes, it comes harder and more powerfully such that I also know at some point we will succumb, and that it is only a matter of time until I too am swallowed by the water.
Once again I woke with dread, though this time with far less terror and anxiety.
It makes sense that this dream has come back to me on the edge of forty. We tend to think of death, or at the very least our subconscious tends to think of death when we encounter situations, either personally or vicariously, that remind us of our own mortality. Illness, a traumatic event, significant milestones and birthdays can each do this, evoking feelings that otherwise lay buried beneath the clutter of our occupied lives.
Although the inevitability of my death is present in both dreams, my experience of life on the way to it, and the way that I encountered death were profoundly different – proof that my relationship with death has evolved somewhat over the years. Whereas in childhood, death, dimly shrouded, came while I was alone, it now comes illuminated, with all of my loved one’s near, each occupying the same space or ‘conditions’ that I am.
These conditions of course are the existential realities that come with being human – in spite of a fierce self-preservation instinct, each of us will die, each of us lives with the knowledge of our own death, each of us will die alone, and each of us exists alone, responsible for creating meaning out of an existence that provides none. This is the crux of freedom. “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre).
For many of us, when a confrontation with these conditions creeps in by way of a dream, life event, or quiet moment alone, powerful and potentially overwhelming feelings can emerge and we are faced with a choice. We can allow ourselves to experience these feelings and examine our existence, or we can ignore them, along with any consideration of existential issues. For many, or dare I say most, it’s easier and less anxiety provoking to force each of these out of consciousness by way of distraction. Although ignoring may mean we’re able to avoid feelings of anxiety, sadness, or isolation for the moment, it also means we are denying responsibility, and giving up freedom. Many of us will relinquish freedom to anything that will create meaning for us if it means not having to face these issues or experience the feelings that can accompany thinking about them.
Soren Kirkegaard, one of the great existential thinkers believed that freedom emerged from crisis, and crisis from intellectual, emotional, or physical imprisonment (Kirk Schneider). In his day imprisonment took the form of acquiescence to the Catholic Church (also Schneider). With the passing of time and the advent of all things modern, we can relinquish our freedom without seeming to, and subsequently, today, imprisonment looks a lot like freedom.
In the United States we believe and assert that we are free, the freest on the planet perhaps. We make hundreds of choices every day, each of which might imply, but does not necessarily indicate freedom. Mired in addiction, be it to work, the Internet, consumption, materialism, unhealthy relationships, sex, exercise, alcohol, drugs, healthy eating, unhealthy eating, gambling, pornography, or our phones, the numbers depict a people who are far from exerting actual freedom. We are a self-medicating society, forever denying, or unable to recognize any underlying problem, and eager to relinquish actual freedom for a false sense of security.
We hand over our freedom because the responsibility that comes with it is too great, too overwhelming. To face death, meaningless, and isolation, to consider their implications, and to give them a presence in our lives is too dark, it’s too negative, and it wastes the time we do have. Be that as it may, if we desire real freedom, we need to explore and engage these givens, for in the same way too much pessimism acts as an impetus for pathology and distorted reality, so too does too much optimism. Pretending we’re fine with the idea of our own death when we aren’t, or avoiding thinking about the topic to eschew any feelings of discomfort only increases the potential for negative social, emotional or behavioral outcomes.
Research has illuminated the transdiagnostic nature of death anxiety. In other words, death anxiety is considered a basic construct underlying the development and maintenance of many psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, social anxiety, OCD, PTSD and somatic symptoms and disorders. Additionally, it has been found to be prevalent in both clinical and nonclinical populations, meaning that most people experience some amount of anxiety related to the anticipation, and awareness, of dying, death, and nonexistence. However, despite its ubiquitousness, death anxiety is scarcely talked about – or acknowledged. Many of the problems we experience in living, and many of our addictions have death anxiety at their root. An unconscious fear of death unquestionably motivates much of our behavior – whether it’s covert denial and avoidance or overt pathology.
One of my favorite quotes is a line in Cormac McCarthy’s film, The Counselor- a fantastic existentially-themed movie that is admittedly difficult to watch. “We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives – that we will not thereby be made less.”
And that is the point, exactly. The brevity of our life makes it all the more precious. The isolation inherent in existence makes our connections all the more important. The meaningless of the universe makes the choices we make about how to spend our consciousness all the more poignant, and the responsibility we have to create what we will from a universe with no external structure, grants us true freedom.
Nietzsche said that each of us must decide how much truth we can stand. Because the truth can be incredibly difficult, and because choosing to take the red pill to discover how deep the rabbit hole goes often means a dismantling of the comforting illusions we’ve clung to, many chose to ignore it. But it is in the dismantling that an authentic and richer existence can be found. Our existential reality only seems a grim end until we engage it. When we do, it becomes a beginning. And despite our resistance to it, sometimes, in a gracious and desperate act, the truth pushes itself into our consciousness by way of a dream or a fleeting thought, reminding us that the more unlived our life, the less freedom and the more anxiety – whether we are conscious of it or not.
Today, at forty, time has begun to pick up speed and I realize that I cannot slow it down. I try not to be frightened by its passing, but to revel in the fact that I’m here, that I’m loved by the incredible people in my life, and that I’m lucky enough to love them back. I try to let the ephemeral nature of my time here inform the choices I make and how I live. I try to always be expanding the continuum along which I choose to experience life, to let go of the dichotomous existence permeating our culture, and to allow myself to expand as a person. And as was symbolized in the allegory that was my dream, it seems this desire for expansion has been with me since I was a child, perfectly represented in the widening space the cube consumed as it traveled from one side – or one year – to the next.