Some advice from Bertrand Russell about overcoming the fear of death, that I struck me in the existential dilemma of facing a global pandemic:
“The best way to overcome [the fear of death] – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river—small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”
Using Russell’s river analogy, many of us are in the rushing past boulders phase of life. And suddenly, our waters are still. Even momentarily, even if only for a few weeks or months, the rhythm of our lives has abruptly changed and we’ve had no real say in the matter.
Russell’s advice about how to grow old feels relevant because we are all facing our own mortality right now. We are facing our impotence to change the situation. And we are seeing the pace of our individual lives changed to something unrecognisable to that which we had chosen for ourselves. We are, in many ways, facing an accelerated glimpse into our own ageing and death. We are living out an existential experiment of sorts.
Wider interests that help the walls of the ego recede also help the physical walls we find enclosing us recede. I have found this in recent experiences of contemplation, reading poetry, and learning to play the guitar. The more time I spend beyond myself, the more time I enjoy free from the knowledge that I am not in control of what happens to me or anyone else.
This is easier said than done. I know I’ve experienced this isolation differently from one hour to the next, in a long string of countless hours.
Sometimes I am grounded in the practical requirements of work – send this email, work on this project, do this load of laundry…
Other times I am unable to focus on much more than listening to the birds singing and feeling sun on my face as I sit in the garden…
Still others I want nothing more than to scroll aimlessly through my phone, glimpsing through self-curated posts how other people are experiencing this…
Sometimes I feel exceptionally connected to my family as we play a board game together, and other times I feel something akin to rage coursing through me as I try to get just five minutes to myself without someone asking something of me.
So I talk about this advice from Bertrand Russell with a massive caveat, which is there are times when we lack the bandwidth to take on anything beyond our immediate. But when we can, there is an easing of tensions. To be free from my own ego, and to connect to something larger than myself, I can glimpse the painless merging with the sea that awaits all of us some indeterminate time into the future.
What interests could help you escape the walls of your ego, and the four walls of your home right now?