timor mortis

The knowledge that we will all die is a strange dark flower on the long history of human cognitive evolution. It may be the concept that more than anything else - more than the language we use to express it, more than the emotional capacity to grieve it and the episodic memory we use to recall it - marks the decisive branching of homo sapiens sapiens from our hominid ancestors. Death is what came into the garden when we ate the apple of knowledge. It came to us not as a punishment, but simply because it is the unavoidable consequence of having a certain capacity to know, to travel in time and see that we will not be alive forever. Whatever that final tweak of cognitive capacity was, we have spent the millenia since trying to incorporate the knowledge and manage the dilemma that results. How do you live a meaningful life when you know it's going to end?


Certainly, as a way of coping with the thought of death, we often turn to thoughts about other 'bigger' structures that may be immune to it. But we don't do this simply to bury our fear under a cortical carpet and stomp the rug down. The response is not entirely about suppression, about stopping yourself thinking about something unpleasant. It is an active response in order to resolve a situation, take control of it - because you must take steps to deal, not just with the present fear but also the future reality. The tiger will get you, so what are you going to do about it if you are not to remain paralyzed?

So some people write poems.

- Alice Major, from her essay "The Wide and Starry Sky: Falling in Love with the Poem" in the Summer 2015 (#135) issue of The New Quarterly.

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