The myth of progress and the reality of death

5 Jun
2010

“How did we get to this stage?” – a comment on my last blog (Death matters – no kidding!) from Charles of The Good Funeral Guide, whose excellent blog I often visit.

Indeed, how did we get to the point that one actually has to be reminded that death still matters?

This is obviously a complex question, which can be answered on various levels – socially, religio-historically, scientifically, spiritually, etc. All these disciplines will have their own way of explaining this development. They will use metaphors that express the truth from their particular perspective.

In this limited sense I will venture an explanation from my own personal perspective:

One could understand the apparent disappearance of death as an issue in terms of its intrinsic incompatibility with our modern myth of progress. Which is to say that death has not disappeared of its own accord but rather been expelled for the difficulties it presents to our ideal of material progress.

For death is the negation of all material progress. From the viewpoint of the benefits progress brings the individual, death is in fact the absolute negation of progress, for it wipes out everything that has been achieved by or for the individual. A hardworking person may have made much material progress during their life – but death will take all that away. This simply cannot be disputed; therefore the only solution, if one wants to retain the myth of progress as the meaning of life, is to ignore death. It cannot be defeated, softened, integrated, or made friends with by progress – believers in the myth of progress cannot even lightly touch it in thought or discussion, without their belief suffering a fatal infection.

There are qualifications to be made here. Firstly, the absolute loss to death of all progress made is only a certainty on the material level, and therefore within the context of an essentially atheistic or at least non-believing society. A believer in something beyond life believes he or she retains the spiritual progress made during life on earth.  Whether this is true or not, the belief is that “all is not vanity” – the improved soul goes on, progresses indefinitely. Death is the negation only of material or social, collective progress.

The second qualification regards this social progress, for absolute negation is limited not only to non-believers but also only with respect to the individual. The individual may die, but the greater whole to which he or she belongs goes on, and thus progress may be seen to continue therein. This can be the family, the society, or these days even the environment as a whole. The body social, the family, the earth may be perceived to progress, even as its members steadily disappear into nothingness; in this manner the myth of progress can be maintained even as death is accepted.

But the prerequisite for focusing on the continuance of the greater whole is a simultaneous loss of importance of the individual at the hands of the collective.  Where strong genuine individualism is present, the individuals interest themselves for their personal salvation – focusing on the survival or progress of the collective or the family is seen as a miserable attempt at consolation, the “booby prize” in comparison with the Grand Prix of personal continuity through eternity.

We can now summarize our world’s apparent disinterest in death as follows. Once society’s religious beliefs in a Beyond have been discredited, the only possible progress is material progress, and that can only exist for the greater whole, the collective. As this process develops, everything which would in turn weaken the new myth of social or collective progress becomes taboo – in particular, death and a sense of the value of the individual over the collective.

If we now go on to speculate on how death will eventually regain its normal and rightful significance, it is obvious that a fatal weakening of our myth of material and social progress is the prerequisite. The distraction from imaginary collective solutions to death (ie social progress) must be well and truly buried; then, when even the social body can be seen to be going nowhere except down into its own grave, the focus can return to the question of the individual’s progress, to his personal salvation. Now he or she will begin to look, to anguish, to pray for a personal solution. And as we know, necessity is the mother of invention.

Unfortunately, the level of desperation, of need required to “bring back the gods” comes later than one imagines, particularly in a resolutely materialistic and fundamentally atheistic world. In such a world, the belief in material progress must be held onto all the more tenaciously – when there is nothing else, only this world, even the most bankrupt and ridiculously unrealistic promises are still listened to.

For such a society, only an “in-your-face” failure will break the grip on the illusion. Then comes the dark, lonely night of the individual soul – alone before the abyss.

But the dew falls when the night is darkest.

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