Ikiru is a beautiful movie, directed by Akira Kurosawa that I saw sometime last year. It impacted me deeply. It speaks about the struggles of a man diagnosed with a terminal illness and his final waking up to life.
The illness jolts him. Until he is diagnosed, he is living a seemingly routine, not a very joyous or meaningful life. The illness suddenly makes him “stare into the sun” – as Irving Yalom would say- and makes him realize his time is short and that he is living meaninglessly.
I see this in therapy with people often. Something jolts them- an illness, a difficult marriage, death of a loved one, losing a job… it could be anything. And all carefully arranged defenses that allowed them to go through an unquestioning routine life up until this point, start crumbling.
What is Death Anxiety?
According to Irvin Yalom, this jolt could be a form of Death Anxiety. In his book “Staring into the Sun”, Irvin Yalom talks about death anxiety and how it disguises itself as other seemingly unrelated issues. It exists as a part of our psyche unless we address it. This anxiety may express itself as “worry of transiency”: the worry that time is fleeting and that people close to us will no longer someday be there or be the same. That children will grow up, spouses will depart and even that someday, we will leave the world and it will continue without us.
The term does not mean simply anxiety about dying but anxiety about not living meaningfully. And the question of not living meaningfully arises only because of the pervading awareness of death as an integral aspect of our life. We are distressed about lack of achievement or meaning or rest, simply because we know our time is limited.
Culturally, we are averse to talking of death. Anyone discussing their own death is dissuaded from doing so, and tends to be seen as depressive. However, awareness of one’s finite time on this planet in this form (whether or not one believes in the afterlife) is probably one of the most important factors for living meaningfully.
Death Anxiety can be a Friend
Death anxiety exists and comes up disguised as other stuff when you don’t make the necessary changes and shifts and embrace and awaken to life. What “living well” means is unique to you but it requires some deep exploration from your end.
In fact, one very potent, exploratory psychotherapeutic exercise to increase your awareness of how meaningfully you are living is: “Writing your Own Eulogy”
A Eulogy is a piece of speech that praises someone highly, especially just after they have died.
Try this insightful exercise right away:
- Imagine you have died today and the piece you are going to write is to be read at your funeral
- Take some quiet time out to be with yourself and ponder over what to write.
- Watch the emotions or feelings that come up in the process. Make a note of them separately.
- Write an honest piece that is true to who you are.
Just thinking about life and death in this fashion itself can be very revealing and awareness-creating.
The Eulogy is not to make you judge whether you are adequate or not, but instead to open you up to the possibility that death may not wait until you fulfil all your duties and achievements. That making meaning out of life is something you need to do now. Your Eulogy can be a guide to introducing wholesome changes in the here and now.
Do share your Eulogies with us. If you are in therapy, discussing your Eulogy with your therapist can open up new insights and can be very fruitful.
Image Credit: Deme Kora