On the Importance of Death

Two grand cosmic forces move through us as we navigate this life… Eros and Death, Freud called them. The Life Drive and the Death Drive.

We see it everywhere in nature… plants and trees grow and thrive in spring and summer… Life, Eros is coursing through them. And then they die back in fall and winter. And that Death is necessary to the unfolding of further Life.

Pretty basic, right?

Well it gets interesting when applied to us, to humans, and to the culture we create.

I have always dismissed Freud as too fixated on sexuality and weird sounding developmental stages (oral, anal, ya know), but I recently took a closer look. And you know he was really onto something when he spoke of the immense costs of repressing the Death Drive.

Take our capitalist economy, for example. It is based on the hope of unlimited growth… that’s what make a “healthy economy,” right? We can treat contraction and decline (i.e. Death) as “bad,” but this immense force of nature can never be subdued. It makes itself known economically in catastrophic “Great Depressions and Recessions” beyond our control.

Freud saw our cultural repression of Death as fueling the devastation of World War I, which he witnessed first hand. Over 17 million people died in that war at the hands of other humans, and over 60 million people were killed in World War II. The scale of the Death and devastation is staggering.

We can also view climate change and ecological destruction in similar terms. In the service of the “perpetual growth machine” of the world economy, we leave a wake of death and devastation. We have brought about the Sixth Great Extinction, and each day roughly 150-200 species go extinct. As author Daniel Pinchbeck points out, we are losing around 10 percent of earth’s remaining biodiversity every 10-15 years.

As disturbing as this is, most of us (myself included), manage to go about our days unconscious of this tragedy.

But we have seen the consequences of suppressing the Death drive… World Wars, Great Depression and Recessions. What if the looming threat of climate change poses another massive confrontation with our repression of the Death Drive? If the scientific consensus is correct, my generation, (and most certainly my children’s generation) will have to reckon with widespread devastation as a result of dramatically rising sea levels and other intense earth changes.

So what is to be done? What might it look like to stop repressing this unavoidable cosmic force of Death?

Pinchbeck claims that with the ecological “mega-crisis” we may be unconsciously willing an initiatory ordeal on a planetary scale. That through this planetary confrontation with Death, we are creating an experience that might wake us up to our potential as a “planetary super-organism” living in a symbiotic relationship with the earth (check out his book How Soon Is Now for more). I tend to agree, and this view of our situation gives me hope.

In psycho-spiritual terms, this time is about making conscious the inherent need for “death passages” throughout our human lives. Modern western society has all but done away with meaningful rites of passage and initiations, culturally sanctioned experiences in which death has figured prominently for millennia and across cultures. Puberty rites are about the ritual death of the child, psychologically speaking, and a coming together of adults and elders to consciously welcome the initiate into adulthood.

But such passages are needed later in life as well. Bill Plotkin speaks of 8 stages of soul-centric human development and the need for rites of passage between each.

You may feel instinctively that you have completed a chapter in your life, that your current identity has run its course and it is time for something new, something that feeds you on a deeper level, which is an expression of your deepest gifts to the world.

This insight about the dance of Eros and Death tells us that allowing your current identity and sense of self to die is an essential step in making space for a new chapter in your life in which Eros and the Life principle can flourish.

So I ask you this… what within you needs to die to make space for the New Life you desire to create?

Many of us are uncomfortable with this idea of inviting psycho-spiritual death in a ritual way. But I think we also get intuitively the immense cost of repeating the same old patterns while living within a shell of who we once were. This is why the theme of death in dreams can actually be a positive sign marking a valuable life passage.

And consider this: by making conscious Death within your own life, how might you be serving a world in which our repression of Death is so costly?