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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 1: Acceptance of Mortality

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and each other. It begins with an acknowledgement and a prediction:

I exist. In all probability, at some point, I will cease to exist.

Just as Descartes began his philosophy with the common denominator “I think, therefore I am,” survival begins with the mean observation that we each exist. That naked statement is an observation, devoid of meaning. It implies nothing, other than that one is living and breathing, physically… physiologically. There is no implication as to why or what for, just the observation of the fact. We know little about how we came to exist and cannot agree on much of which we might know about it. Therefore, we start with the present, in real time. No before, just now. You exist. I exist. We exist.

Existing implies the medical definition of life: respiration, maintaining homeostasis, taking in and using up energy. As humans, we are also consciously aware, more or less. Also as humans, we also often confuse our conscious awareness with our existence. Rather than seeing self-awareness as a feature or consequence of our physical existence, we commonly separate the two. When self-awareness is viewed as independent of physical existence, there may be an urge to extend its existence past the medical definition of death.

The Western mind particularly, but not exclusively, cherishes our self-awareness and defines this as self. Heavily influenced by Plato’s separation of mind and body, this self is often used synonymously with existence. Psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their colleagues and followers explored and enhanced our concepts of the self in very different ways during the twentieth century.

Most existing individuals seek to extend their self-awareness, either by extending their physical existence or by assigning self-awareness or self to a spiritual existence that is thought to be distinct from the physiological body and exist or survive apart from it. This is often referred to the soul and it promotes the various concepts of life after death.

If our definition of existence includes observation of our physical existence, however, millennia of observations would lead us to conclude that that our individual physical existence on this planet will end at some point in what we are currently calling time (which is itself propelled by entropy). We may hope otherwise, we may believe that this may not remain true in the future, we may believe that we have a soul and that our self will carry on afterwards, but the predominance of observations so far on this planet predict that our bodily existence will end at some point. Therefore, we might be reasonable to expect it. We cannot say what, if anything, preceded our existence, whether we could have expected it, or if there is a future for our consciousness, but we know ourselves in the present and that we can expect our bodies to fail our self-awareness at some point in the future.

The lauded late psychoanalytic work, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker[1] attempts to describe the goal of human existence as fearful avoidance of the awareness of our mortality and ultimate lack of control over our future, driving us into hero seeking behaviors that attempt to deny this reality.

We seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming. - Don Delillo in White Noise

Few authors have written of the pressures of survival as directly as Jack London. His worlds embody the process of natural selection as humans and animals struggle to reconcile their natural drives against the natural elements and forces that determine or end their survival. In London’s writings, death often comes quickly and as a surprise, even for the strongest and most motivated who do not happen to fit the niche that the moment calls for. Nature is justice and any foolishness or equivocation is dealt with quickly, harshly and unsentimentally. In To Build a Fire, a man dies due to his own poor judgment and his failure to assess his situation correctly while his dog instinctively survives. A small family of adults in The Call of the Wild perishes within minutes after ignorantly and arrogantly ignoring the condition of the ice they set out upon. London accepts these deaths as the natural consequence of simple behavior. Survival is based upon cold, hard facts without the luxury of psychological distortion such as projection or denial. His work describes the unyielding demands of nature and natural selection.

It has been barely arguable since the days of the Gnostics is that we each own a physical existence with self-awareness that is alive today and will probably not be in the future. The critical question becomes, “Is that enough”? A negative answer may lead to misery for the individual or those whom he makes (or who become) victims of his efforts to change or deny this basic observation. A positive answer may lead to the unfettered maximization of the physical existence of the individual and those who might have been his victims.

How we behave can be influenced by what we believe. What we believe is based not only on our experience, but on what we have been taught. The staying power of early lessons is remarkable. Each society cherishes stories, lessons, fables, that reinforce values thought to be essential to survival of the individual but actually support the continued existence of that society, for better or worse.

Albert Camus and John Paul Sartre, iconic existential philosophers, developed twentieth century concepts of existentialism. Often inaccurately viewed solely as angst and despair, their work followed the world-wide trauma of two wars which they experienced directly in their home country of France. Though they differed on their feelings about their realizations, and eschewed nihilism, they offered a view of our existence that could be considered alternatively bleak or freeing. Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to develop the concept of self-determination (of behavior) as the path to true freedom. From it, we see that freedom is the opportunity to choose from among available options, not the power to always determine which options are available. Later authors, such as the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, developed these concepts as existential psychotherapy to aid their patients and clients in escaping despair and depression.

Abraham Maslow, the psychologist mostly remembered for his hierarchy of needs, perhaps best understood and described our existential and evolutionary situation. He wrote of self-actualization. Self-actualization is the maximization of the talents of an individual, satisfying his aesthetic needs once baser physiological, safety, social and esteem needs have been met. Through maximizing self-awareness, rigorous self-honesty (as in Alcoholics Anonymous), taking full responsibility for one’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and choosing to behave according to a rational plan, a self-actualized individual enjoys spontaneity, creativity, morality, problem solving skills, a lack of prejudice and an acceptance of facts.

Maslow’s work on the development of human personality and motivation, as with many works of genius, is so true and simple it seems obvious now that he has demonstrated it for us. Dividing human needs into the three categories of deficiency needs, growth needs and aesthetic needs, he showed how basic levels of physiology take preference over safety, which itself takes precedence over social needs, which themselves are more essential than the need for self-esteem. A lack of oxygen is more important than the need for food and the need for shelter more important than seeking a good reputation. Maslow[2] showed that motivation to achieve the next level was contingent upon satisfying the needs at the current level. His theories prioritized human survival mechanisms and goals. As important as the ranking, though, is the acknowledgement of the importance of each of these needs.

These great thinkers have explored how even the acceptance of a limited life span and limited human power can be tolerated, and how embracing the concept can even enhance our enjoyment of that life and its possibilities.

There are two halves to individual peace: admitting and accepting. Universally, attempts to deny or avoid the end of our physical existence and self-awareness have led to death, torture, war, deprivation and other forms of misery in human populations. Perhaps universal acceptance of our mortality will have very different consequences for the human race.

I exist. In all probability, at some point, I will cease to exist.

[1] Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-83240-2, 1973 [2] A.H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50 (1943):370-96.

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