You’re going to die. I’m going to die. We don’t talk about it much. Even though if you ask me, it’s incredible that we talk about anything else, given the existential enormity of that impending black hole.
So it gladdened my heart to find a fascinating Scientific American article on research about the effects of at least thinking about mortality, and how it affects us. The gist: Distant, abstract thoughts of death just make us want to hunker down as we are; more personal, imagined encounters with death can shake us up toward becoming better people.
One of our systems of existential thinking responds to the abstract concept of dying, so that even subtle everyday reminders of death, such as driving past a cemetery, prime the mind to ward off existential terror. This system tends to bolster our already existing beliefs, both religious and cultural, as a way of affirming life. For instance, studies have shown that after people reflect on what will happen when they die, they become more nationalistic and defensive about their political beliefs.
The second existential system is vivid, concrete and highly personal; it is triggered not by subtle and abstract thoughts but by actually coming face to face with death. When this system is primed into action—as the above apartment fire scenario is meant to do—our very personal sense of mortality can lead us to reexamine our priorities in life, to become more grateful and to grow spiritually. Soldiers who have seen combat and people who have lived through life-threatening illnesses often report these shifts in attitude.