ADVERTISEMENT
See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 3

Musing on Mortality Can Both Help and Harm

We run from the subject like there's no tomorrow, but thinking about death can ease our angst and make us better people, too



DUANE RIEDER Getty Images

My father was just 32 years old when he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Weeks later he was in the hospital, informed that he would not be leaving. Miraculously the leukemia went into remission, and he lived another five years. Even as a child, though, I could clearly see that the man who returned from the hospital was not the same one who had left home. Before, he had been concerned mostly with work and material success; now he embraced religion and family. Getting a second, tenuous chance at life was a profound experience that deeply changed his values and behavior.

We deflect it with humor, hedge against it with good works, shun reminders of our animal nature. Yet we all share the reality of mortality, and we know it, try as we might to throttle our thoughts about it. Indeed, this simultaneous knowing and recoiling from our knowledge is a tension that will run throughout our life. Yet despite the significance of the subject, for most of its history psychology has left the matter of how mortal thoughts affect us almost completely unexplored—terror incognita.

This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now!

Select an option below:

Customer Sign In

*You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content


It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on nature.com.
Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X