Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that this past summer was a big one for cinema. Millions of people flocked to the theatres to see the year’s biggest blockbuster, a groundbreaking movie that bravely examines what it means to be human… and what it means to transcend death.
I am talking, of course, about the Barbie movie.
Obviously, I am joking. But there is one moment in the Barbie movie that I really do want to talk about. It happens pretty early on in the film, when we get to see all the Barbies and Kens having one of their usual, flawlessly choreographed dance parties.
Everything is going swimmingly until Margot Robbie’s Barbie asks, in the middle of the dance floor: “You guys ever think about dying?” The music stops, the choreography screeches to a halt, and everybody else looks on in horrified silence, until Barbie reads the room and smooths things over: “I’m just dying to dance!” Visibly relieved, the others all resume partying and move on as if nothing happened.
Our changing relationship with death
Granted, the Barbies live in a perfect world where aging and death don’t seem to exist. One can only imagine that for them, these concepts would have to be especially horrifying.
Still, I can’t help but feel that this reaction isn’t too far off from how real people might react in the same situation.
Living in North America in the 21st century, death usually feels pretty far removed from everyday life. Modern medicine, technological advances, and lifestyle changes have extended our lifespans and insulated us from sickness. Serious illness is most often kept out of view, hidden within the walls of hospitals and hospices (even during a global pandemic).
In the inevitable event that death comes knocking, we’ve still found ways to keep it at arm’s length. When somebody we love passes away, for instance, we call in a raft of professionals to take their bodies away, prepare them for their funerals, and eventually lay them to rest. In this process, the main role of the deceased person’s family and loved ones is simply paying the (not insubstantial) bills.
All of this may seem totally natural to us now — but it’s a huge departure from how we humans have lived for most of our history. Not only did we used to be more exposed to death and disease, we also had a lot more cultural and religious rituals that forced us to confront our loss. Now, all we really have in North America is a funeral, maybe a wake or a memorial service — and then, nothing.
Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that it’s ever been fun to mourn a loved one’s loss. Grief has never been an enjoyable experience. But in the past, mourning rituals created a space for us to properly process the death of somebody we loved — not to mention one where we could also confront our own mortality.
In the modern age, what do we have instead? We have a culture that is highly death avoidant — one that encourages us to keep our grief private and separate from the rest of our lives. We have no space and no skills to process our fears and emotions about death. So we end up channelling those emotions into other things.
Our culture’s denial of death (and how it hurts us)
Here on the Viive blog, we’ve written a lot about how this avoidance stands in the way of Aging & End of Life Planning. That comes back to bite us (and our families) when we are inevitably faced with aging, illness, and death.
But our avoidance of death hurts us in more ways than just undermining our Aging & End of Life Planning efforts. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that this aspect of our culture is making us less happy, less fulfilled, and less connected to other people, even during the seasons of life when we are otherwise healthy. 
Ernest Becker and The Denial of Death
In the 1970s, an anthropologist named Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death. His basic idea was that most of what we do as humans stems from our underlying fear of death: we can’t stomach the idea of simply no longer existing, so we spend our lives striving to create legacies that will outlive us.
In the decades since Becker’s book first came up, psychologists have backed up his thinking with research and experimentation. One key finding to come out of this research: when we’re forced to confront our own mortality, we use self-esteem to help ourselves feel better. We reach for things that make us feel good about ourselves as individuals, and we cling more ardently to our existing beliefs and worldviews. 
In practice, this could take a lot of different forms, not all of them bad. For example, if you derive self-esteem from your religious faith, you might subconsciously manage your fear of death by volunteering with your church and giving back to others in your community.
That being said, we’re living in a highly individualistic, highly consumerist society — so it stands to reason that many of us will reach for individualistic, consumerist solutions when we need to feel better about ourselves. We fixate on beauty, wealth, and career success. We chase after status symbols. We indulge in retail therapy.
What happens when we run away
Here’s the problem: when we fixate on pumping ourselves up, we’re also cutting ourselves off from the things that truly matter. There are only so many hours in the day, and if we consistently choose to focus on the superficial stuff that makes us feel hunky-dory in the moment, it means we’re never going to get to the deep stuff.
It means we don’t take the time to sit down and ask ourselves what’s really important to us. It means we don’t truly treasure the time we have with others. It means we don’t reach out and build connections with other people in our communities. It means we never learn to live authentically.
But what if we had a different relationship with Aging & End of Life? If we, as a society, had the skills to manage our anxieties about dying, then maybe we wouldn’t need to spend so much time distracting ourselves from reality. If we could hold the space to recognize our own mortality, maybe we could live our day-to-day lives in alignment with our real values.
A better way forward
In 2011, an Australian palliative care worker named Bronnie Ware published a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. It’s exactly what you would expect from the title: a list of 5 regrets that Ware’s patients often talked about as their lives came to an end.
Here are those regrets:
- "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- "I wish I hadn't worked so hard."
- "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings."
- "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends."
- "I wish that I had let myself be happier."
We know from accounts like Bronnie Ware’s, and from lots of more formal research, what it really means to live a good life. But many of us still struggle to keep these lessons in mind.
As a culture, we need to learn to process our fears about Aging & End of Life. That doesn’t mean fixating on death all of the time, or letting our fears consume us. Being overly conscious of our own mortality can lead us to spiral into death anxiety, or thanatophobia — which is certainly not the goal.
The goal is simply to accept that death is a part of the human experience. Remembering that can keep us more humble, more attuned to our values, and more connected to others. The bottom line: Don’t let the fear of death stand in the way of you living your life.
- Arndt, J., Routledge, C., Cox, C. R., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). The worm at the core: A terror management perspective on the roots of psychological dysfunction. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 11(3), 191-213.
- Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(2), 155-195.