How to Live with Death

Illustration from Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a remarkable Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud reframed our mortality as an organizing principle of human life.

Our lifelong struggle to learn how to live is inseparable from two facts only: that of our mortality and that of our dread of it, dread with an edge of denial. Half a millennium ago — a swath of time strewn with the lives and deaths of everyone who came before us — Montaigne captured this paradox in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Centuries later, John Updike — a mind closer to our own time but now swept by mortality to the same nonexistence as Montaigne — echoed the sentiment when he wrote: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why… be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

How to live with what lies behind that perennial “why” is what British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips examines in Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories(public library) — a rather unusual and insightful reflection on mortality, suffering, and the redemptions of living through the dual lens of the lives of two cultural titans who have shaped the modern understanding of life from very different but, as Phillips demonstrates, powerfully complementary angles: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

Phillips, a keen observer of our inner contradictions, writes:

For Freud, as for Darwin, there is not just the right amount of suffering in any conventionally moral sense of right: for who could ever condone suffering? But there is a necessary amount. Our instincts, at once the source of our suffering and of our satisfaction, ensure the survival of the species and the death of the individual.

The amount of suffering in the world is not something added on; it is integral to the world, of a piece with our life in nature. This is one of the things that Freud and Darwin take for granted. But it is one thing not to believe in redemption — in saving graces, or supernatural solutions — and quite another not to believe in justice. So the question that haunts their writing is: how does one take justice seriously if one takes nature seriously?

Darwin, to be sure, had his own profound confrontation with suffering in his beloved daughter Annie’s death just as he was beginning to tell the story of life itself. After two generational revolutions of the cycle of life, Freud made our relationship to death a centerpiece of understanding our trials of living. With an eye to these parallel legacies, Phillips writes:

If death was at once final and unavoidable, it was also a kind of positive or negative ideal; it was either what we most desired, or what, for the time being, had to be avoided at all costs. For both Darwin and Freud, in other words, death was an organizing principle; as though people were the animals that were haunted by their own and other people’s absences… Modern lives, unconsoled by religious belief, could be consumed by the experience of loss.

So what else could a life be now but a grief-stricken project, a desperate attempt to make grief itself somehow redemptive, a source of secular wisdom? Now that all modern therapies are forms of bereavement counselling, it is important that we don’t lose our sense of the larger history of our grief. It was not life after death that Darwin and Freud speculated about, but life with death: its personal and trans-generational history.


Redemption — being saved from something or other — has been such an addictive idea because there must always be a question, somewhere in our minds, about what we might gain from descriptions and experiences of loss. And the fact of our own death, of course, is always going to be a paradoxical kind of loss (at once ours and not ours). But the enigma of loss — looked at from the individual’s and, as it were, from nature’s point of view — was what haunted Darwin and Freud. As though we can’t stop speaking the language of regret; as though our lives are tailed by disappointment and grief, and this in itself is a mystery. After all, nothing else in nature seems quite so grief-stricken, or impressed by its own dismay…



I attend, therefore I am

An art student paints a picture for a school exhibition. 1961. Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum

You are only as strong as your powers of attention, and other uncomfortable truths about the self

by Carolyn Dicey Jennings is assistant professor of philosophy and cognitive science at University of California, Merced. Her research has been published in Synthese, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Consciousness & Cognition, and Journal of Consciousness Studies. She lives in Merced.

You have thoughts, feelings and desires. You remember your past and imagine your future. Sometimes you make a special effort, other times you are content to simply relax. All of these things are true about you. But do you exist? Is your sense of self an illusion, or is there something in the world that we can point to and say: ‘Ah, yes – that is you’? If you are familiar with the contemporary science of mind, you will know that the concept of a substantive self, separate from the mere experience of self, is unpopular. But this stance is unwarranted. Research on attention points to a self beyond experience, with its own powers and properties.

So what is attention? Attention is what you use to drown out distracting sights and sounds, to focus on whatever it is you need to focus on. You are using attention to read this, right now. It is something that you can control and maintain but it is also strongly influenced by the world around you, which encourages you to focus on new and different stimuli. Sometimes being encouraged to change focus can be good – it is good that you look up from your cellphone when a bike comes barrelling down the sidewalk, for example. But this encouragement can also keep you from completing tasks, as when you get caught in a spiral of mindless clickbait. You might think of your powers of attention as what you use to control the focus of your attention, away from distractions and toward your favoured point of focus.

This same power of attention – what you use in everyday life to stay on task – is what helps you in moments of conflict more generally – moments when you are caught between two (or more) options, both of which appeal to you, and you are torn on which option to choose. The philosopher Robert Kane has a way of talking about these life-defining moments: they are ‘self-forming actions’. Kane’s idea is that our truest expressions of ourselves come at moments in which our will is divided. At such moments, we could go either of two ways, but we go one way, and in doing so we help set in place some feature of ourselves – the feature that aligns with the chosen path.

Imagine that while job-hunting you receive two offers, only one of which is in your current field. The job in your field would provide security and good conditions, but you have come to find yourself more interested in the new field. The job in the new field would be risky, with less security and more challenging conditions, but you hope that it will lead to better opportunities in the future. What should you do?

For Kane, the effort of choosing between these two halves of yourself – the half that is concerned about security and the half that desires change – creates conflict in the brain that can be resolved only through a combination of quantum indeterminacy and chaotic amplification. While this might seem implausible on its face, Kane’s proposed mechanism has some evidentiary support. The result is a self-forming action in two respects. We are responsible for forming the action, whatever the outcome, by putting our efforts behind each of two opposing outcomes and forcing a resolution. And the outcome helps to shape our future self, in that it favours one of two hitherto conflicting motivations.

Although Kane does not explicitly mention attention, it is clear that attention is an essential part of this picture. When faced with conflicting options, we attend to them in turn. You turn your attention from the security of one job to the excitement of the other. Sometimes attention helps to determine the outcome, as when we focus more on either security or excitement. Other times our attention creates the conditions for indeterminacy, as we effortfully keep both options afloat. Either way, attention plays a crucial role…