Facing our fear of death
Pictured above: Gasping goldfish (Creative Commons license)
NOVEMBER 28, 2021
Facing our fear of death
Death in Print: Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society by Rachel & Ross Menzies Meet: psychologist & author Rachel Menzies, Death on Screen: Lisel Mueller on 'The Marginalian'
Listen to Episode 6 on the following podcast platforms
Or, if you've already listened to the show, scroll down for more info and links . . .
Facing our fear of death (and what's the goldfish got to do with it all?)
In episode 6 of Deathwalker’s Guide to Life, we explore how our fear of death is the root of many, many problems in our world. I know this from personal experience. For many years I found it impossible to talk openly and honestly about death. I repressed my fears and this impacted on my ability to support those I loved. More recently, after being widowed but being fortunate enough to find love again, my fear of death has resulted in anxiety and panic attacks. It’s a dysfunctional way to live so I’ve focused on understanding and expressing my emotions, but the reality is that I am still a work in progress.

Does our inability to reckon with the fact we are, perhaps, ‘mere mortals’, have disastrous consequences for humanity? This is a question I’m keen to explore in this episode. I grew up with parents who reminded me often that we were ‘mere’ mortals. By definition a mere mortal is one who is not god, but since my dad was an atheist, perhaps he had a different understanding. Given he was also an environmentalist, being a 'mere mortal' seemed to inspire him to be a better custodian of our land.

By the way, during my research into the meaning of mere mortal, I came across a book titled ‘No Mere Mortals: Marriage for People Who Will Live Forever’.

Yet while some believe they will live forever and act accordingly, there are plenty more who live like there’s no tomorrow and perhaps their materialism develops into toxic consumerism.

In this show, I speak with Rachel Menzies, who with her father Ross Menzies has written several books about what our fear of death drives us to do. While the Menzies acknowledge that some of the consequences have been glorious, they examine numerous other consequences that have been destructive, leading to global conflicts and genocide.

They hypothesise that our unconscious dread of death has led to rampant consumerism and overpopulation, driving the global warming and pandemic crises that now threaten our very existence. In a terrible irony, homo sapiens may ultimately be destroyed by our knowledge of our own mortality.

There are a number reasons this book interests me.

In 2018, I wrote a personal essay called ‘Scared to Death’, which was published in an anthology edited by Naomi Arnold, Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety (VUP 2018).

My essay opens with a scene that demonstrates my almost pathological fear that my beloved husband David will die. I wrote the essay around the time he led some of our Australian friends on a challenging five-day tramp, from Klondyke Corner near Arthurs Pass to Hokitika, which involves crossing three mountain passes: Harman, Whitehorn and Browning.

Three days later, back at home, just before bed, I learned there was a heavy rain warning in the area they were tramping. I read that during heavy rain, steep crevasses form on Whitehorn Pass, a glacier. Later that night, I woke at 3am and lay awake worrying. Then I had a massive panic attack, imagining David had fallen into a crevasse. I called the experience an 'awake-mare' – it was just as vivid as your most horrible nightmare and I was just as incapable of using rational thought to extract myself from it. Unfortunately, before I got better – and my anxiety lessened – it got worse. My fear that he would die manifested as acute anxiety.

Occasional bouts of anxiety are normal. Technically, they become an anxiety disorder when they do not go away. In my experience, anxiety feeds on anxiety. Without any effort on my part, it can soon become a bloated creature, a bit like a goldfish with dropsy that’s been turfed into the toilet but won’t flush away and is left bobbing amongst the detritus, its wee mouth appearing to gasp for breath.

By the way, ‘Scared to Death’ is currently being adapted for the screen by producer David Jacobs and Mia Maramara and the working title for the film adaptation is ‘Goldfish’.
HEADLANDS is a short film anthology illuminating anxiety. The series will appeal to broad audiences by reflecting the experiences of those among us who have lived with anxiety. We are all either one of those people or close to one. The films connect to viewers with insight, compassion, relatability, hope, depth and humour.

Like Modern Love, each story engages you through a personal journey inspired by an essay. Nine contributing writers to Naomi Arnold’s ground-breaking Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety have partnered with nine proven emerging directors. The result is like a concept album. The stories stand alone, averaging 12 minutes in duration. Together they weave threads of a collective fabric, honouring the unease in our lives.

The project has been three years in development. In 2019 there was a Boosted crowdfunding campaign for the series development. The proceeds from that campaign got combined with support from The Body Shop, Creative New Zealand, the Health Promotion Agency (HPA), University of Auckland and NZ On Air to help get us to this point.

There are now nine finished scripts and production teams - including 'Goldfish', which will be directed by Mia Maramara (pictured on far left above) - raring to go in 2022. We have platform support from RNZ and Attitude Live. And we have a production funding application in front of NZ On Air.
Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society
Before You Knew My Name book cover
Photo by Leio
Photo by Shifaaz
Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society is an encyclopaedic look at the fear of death and how it manifests.

There are chapters on how we bargain with it, by subscribing to religious beliefs or by investing in ‘immortality projects’ and other creative works.

There are chapters on how love may in fact be the root of all fear of death and, specifically, how attachment theory plays a role.

There are chapters that examine the consequences of death denial when we are diagnosed with a life limiting illness, how our refusal to let go can be caustic.

And there is, of course, a detailed chapter looking at death dread and mental illness.

Finally, the book provides several antidotes: there is a chapter on the ‘Death Positive’ movement, of which this show is part, and the role of stoicism and neutral acceptance.

My life could be a case study in almost every chapter.
Meet Rachel E. Menzies
Rachel E. Menzies completed her honours degree in psychology at the University of Sydney, taking out the Dick Thompson Thesis Prize for her work on the dread of death and its relationship to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She then went on to complete both her Masters of Clinical Psychology and her PhD at the University of Sydney.

In addition to her clinical work, Rachel currently works as a postdoctoral research fellow and guest lecturer at the University of Sydney.

Beginning as an undergraduate, she has published extensively on the causes of various disorders, including depression, OCD, panic disorder, illness anxiety, social anxiety, agoraphobia, generalised anxiety disorder and the specific phobias, as well as on gender differences in anxiety.

Rachel was featured in The Conversation Yearbook 2016, a collection of the top one per cent of ‘standout articles from Australia’s top thinkers’. Rachel is the lead editor of the book Curing the Dread of Death: Theory, Research and Practice, published by Australian Academic Press in 2018. In 2019, she released her second book: Tales from the Valley of Death: Reflections from Psychotherapy on the Fear of Death.

In September 2021, Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society, which Rachel co-wrote with her father, Ross G. Menzies, was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand.

Rachel makes regular appearances on national radio in Australia and at public events such as The Festival of Death and Dying.

My interview with Rachel begins around 10:06 in episode 6.

Rachel nominated 'All Things Must Pass' by George Harrison as a song she would like played at her funeral or wake. Listen to the song in our 'Farewell songs' playlist.
'Immortality in Passing'
In Episode 6 of Deathwalker's Guide to Life, I introduce Maria Popova.

Maria describes herself as a reader, a wonderer, and a lover of reality who makes sense of the world and herself through the essential inner dialogue that is the act of writing. She is a self-styled 'cartographer of meaning in a digital age'.

For the past 15 years, she has published a blog called 'Brain Pickings', which she recently renamed after describing the name ‘unbearable’. Now called 'The Marginalian', it’s a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that aims to make all of our lives more liveable.

As so much great literature tackles death, dying and grief and takes us on journeys through liminal spaces, the posts of Maria’s websites also often concern the inevitable end of our lives.

I subscribe to her weekly newsletter and her most recent edition, titled ‘The Geometry of Grief, linked to a post she published in February 2020 called ‘Immortality in Passing’. It opens with the words of poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan, which are very on topic with the theme of today’s show.

Adnan said: “When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”

The post also features the work of poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to 96, and reflects on what we can learn from her about what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.

In the post, Maria includes an audio recording of her reading one of Mueller’s poems, Immortality, which I played on the show and you can listen to below.

The Marginalian is not only Maria's passion but it's her livelihood so if you enjoy what you discover, remember to donate.