Patrick Shen on the Power of Death Anxiety

Photo + Video + Film
by Ian MacKenzie Nov 4, 2009

The grieving angel / Photo: Theodore Scott / Feature photo: L’enfant terrible

Filmmaker Patrick Shen shares his thoughts how the fear of death influences ourselves and society in very real ways.

By most accounts, the state of the world is in dire shape. The collective madness of humanity seems unable and perhaps unwilling to change its destructive habits, both on the environment and each other.

But what if we could dig deep into our psyche, to understand the root causes of many of our behaviours on a psychological, spiritual, and cultural level?

That was the goal set forth by Patrick Shen, a documentary filmmaker who set out to uncover the source of “death anxiety” and how it influences our lives on a daily basis. The result: Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality. (watch the trailer).

I caught up with Patrick to discuss the film, the nature of death anxiety, and how to make our own lives a work of art.

BNT: How did you come up with the concept for Flight From Death?

PATRICK SHEN: I stumbled upon Ernest Becker’s monumental, Pulitzer Prize-winning book Denial of Death one day at a used book store. I had never heard of it, but the title intrigued me and and I had been asking a lot of the same questions that, according to the back cover, this book seemed to address; so I picked it up.

I was totally awakened by it. Reading Denial of Death marked a major intellectual shift in my life. I wanted everyone to know about the ideas in this book and immediately began exploring the possibility of translating it into documentary form. Making the film and getting to explore it more in such an intense way, marked yet another major shift in my life.

You mention the shoot took 4 years. How did the length of the shoot impact your vision of the film? Further, how did you change from the beginning to the end?

The whole production, inclusive of post-production, took about four years. We shot the film over a period of about two and a half years. I remember feeling like the scope of the film kept expanding with every month that went by. The more time we had to think about the movie, the more we wanted to include in it and the more ambitious we became.

Director Patrick Shen

I love that one film critic in Australia would later refer to Flight from Death as “one of the most ambitious movies ever made.” Four years gave us a lot of time to painstakingly craft what is possibly the most thorough introduction to Becker’s ideas that our little brains could possibly muster at the time.

The events of 9/11/01 certainly had an impact on the vision of the film. 9/11 gave us an opportunity to examine Becker’s ideas within the context of a current event that the entire world was now discussing and attempting to process.

As devastated as we were, not to mention distraught over having lost a friend and fellow crew member that day, I knew we needed to act quickly to incorporate it into the movie.

In the film we focus on the work of three experimental social psychologists who created Terror Management Theory based on the ideas of Ernest Becker.

In a nutshell, the theory states that humans, in order to function properly in light of our impending death, need to feel like we are a significant participant in a meaningful worldview. Without the meaningful context within which we live out our lives, we are stripped of all things that make us feel human and must confront the possibility that we are no more significant than an ant or a fern.

“In order to function properly in light of our impending death, need to feel like we are a significant participant in a meaningful worldview.”

Naturally, an attempt to weaken or to suggest that one’s worldview is invalid, is not taken lightly. At the time, the trio of psychologists had already conducted close to 300 experiments to substantiate this claim. After the events of 9/11, we found ourselves in the middle of a terror management theory experiment taking place on a grand scale.

It allowed us to show that Becker’s ideas were as relevant then as they were when Denial of Death was first published in 1973.

I changed pretty dramatically throughout the course of making the film. I began the journey of making Flight from Death with a predominantly academic and intellectual point of view. I was a man of scientific thought and logical inquiry and it was exactly those elements of Becker’s work that had resonated most with me initially.

Upon a closer and more honest investigation of Becker’s work, I began to see that he asks much more of us, beyond just a scientific approach, in our exploration of the problem of the human condition. Many people mistake Denial of Death for being an atheistic text – as I did in the beginning – and often use Becker’s ideas to bolster an atheistic point of view. Becker was not interested in debunking religion, though I think he probably had his doubts.

In fact, I think Becker was very curious about religion, judging by his documented correspondence with a priest for many years and his fondness for reading Psalms. In addition, Becker’s work borrows heavily from Kierkegaard, a devout Christian.

It’s very possible that Becker considered the religious solution as a viable means to combatting our anxiety. I’m not suggesting that we all run out and go to church, but I am suggesting that we approach the problem of death anxiety – of the human condition – with a multi-disciplinary approach, just as Becker had done with his work and just as we should approach all things so significant in scope.

You assert that all culture can be attributed to dealing with death anxiety. Can you elaborate further on your point?

From anthropology we learn that a culture, or shared set of beliefs about the nature of reality, is specific to a particular region or people group. There may be some underlying general commonalities (i.e. Most cultures have a creation story) but the particular beliefs and practices of one culture can differ significantly and often even appear contradictory to those of another.

Filming an interview

As the film points out, a gifted basketball player whom we shower with fame, fortune, and praise in the United States has much less relevance in another culture which might value more the ability to catch a fish or sustain hours of uninterrupted meditation. Success, or heroism, in one culture clearly does not necessarily translate to another.

Becker theorizes that it is our shared set of beliefs that make it possible for us to feel like we are significant participants in a meaningful universe and that without them, we are confronted with the possibility that we are nothing more than a living, breathing, decaying piece of meat no different than the next life form.

Culture then essentially elevates us beyond the physical world – and its limitations along with it (i.e. death) – and provides definition for our symbolic world, the world within which we truly live out our lives.

In the physical world, we’re doomed. We can’t win. We’ll die someday and there’s nothing we can do about it. Culture provides us the rules and the formula by which we can win, at least symbolically.

“The more people we surround ourselves with that believe the same things we do about the nature of reality, the more confident we can feel that what we believe is true. “

There are two general methods we employ to do this. Heroism is our attempt to transcend the natural order of things. When we achieve more than what others have, effectively transcending the natural order, we enter into the super-natural. The hero stands out amongst the crowd and achieves a sense of symbolic immortality for now he is more than just that decaying piece of meat and also stands a better chance at never being forgotten.

The other method is to immerse ourselves in a cause or belief system that is larger and more permanent than we are. Organisms often have a better chance at survival when they stick together (i.e. strength in numbers). As symbolic creatures, we do the same to survive.

The more people we surround ourselves with that believe the same things we do about the nature of reality, the more confident we can feel that what we believe is true. More importantly, when we are a part of something that will continue on long after we have gone, we too feel like a part of us will go on after we die.

Gabriel Byrne makes a poignant comment about how editing a film is made up of choices: such as a person walking, or a bird taking flight. He compares these disconnected moments as much like life itself. What are your thoughts on his comment?

I think what he meant was that life is inherent in everything around us. Our mental capacity as humans allows to see that life is an incredible phenomenon and if we take the time to notice it, there’s evidence of this phenomenon infused in every movement we make.

Some immortalists believe that science will eventually eliminate aging and death altogether. In the film, you insist that ending “natural death” may actually increase death anxiety, as we can never eliminate accidental death. What do you say to futurists like Ray Kurzweil who continue to pursue immortality through science?

I think it’s an interesting endeavor for sure and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about what it would be like to live forever.

As you point out in your question however, the potential for us to be robbed of our immortality because of an accidental death is even more terrifying than if we are being robbed of say 50 years. I worry that if we have not found a way to constructively process our death anxiety then we aren’t ready to live forever.

In the film, there is a lot of evidence and experimental data to suggest that much of our aggressive behaviors and the violence in the world stems from our inability to reconcile with death anxiety. If this is true, what will happen if our death anxiety is increased even two-fold, let alone ten or twenty?

How has the film been your own attempt to deal with death anxiety? How has meeting your death head on affected your outlook on life?

Admittedly, this film and all films I make, serve a vital role for me in dealing with my own death anxiety. It is certainly my way of leaving my mark on the world.

Flight From Death / BUY DVD

It’s an attempt at heroism. It’s proof of my existence and that maybe I mattered in some way. The creative solution to the problem of death anxiety is an intriguing one. Van Gogh, and his longing to make his mark, left us with many great works of art.

I think transferring our anxieties onto creative works whether they are artistic endeavors or not, can be a very satisfying, and at the same time, constructive way to deal with death anxiety.

Making Flight from Death and dwelling on death for so many years both heightened my anxiety and at the same time soothed it. Because I’m perhaps more aware of death and how it lurks in every shadow and around every corner, I’m more careful. Because I now have a family, that awareness has heightened even more. It’s sometimes troubling how much it influences me.

The challenge for me is to take that anxiety and rather than let it discourage me from fully engaging the world around me, use it to fuel my passion for living.

I have developed a real passion for creating a masterpiece out of life, which is probably the ultimate creative endeavor. My level of appreciation for the opportunity to continuing living each day has evolved into a genuinely overwhelming sense of gratitude. A healthy awareness of death – surely a constant work-in-progress for us all – has given each moment in my life, on most days, a whole new dimension that is now impossible to ignore.

It struck me that much of what you call “death anxiety” in the film is really what Buddhists would call “ego death anxiety.” Further, Buddhists offer a concrete method, meditation, to transcend the ego and acheive a profound inner calm. I’m curious why you never explored this connection in the film?

It’s an intriguing solution for sure. We actually interviewed two Buddhists in the film, David Loy and a close friend of Becker’s, Ron Leifer.

In Buddhism as you might know there is this notion of “no self”. If our ego does not exist and if we can train ourselves to realize this through meditation and essentially disconnect from our-selves, there will be no death anxiety to contend with. I think the problem lies in the meditation.

To achieve that kind of discipline and consistency of focused (or should I say un-focused?) meditation can take most of us a lifetime to master. Also, the ego and the threat of losing our egos to death, has driven humanity to do great things, to innovate, and achieve great feats. What happens to this spirit of progress and creation when the ego is removed from the equation?

These are all really interesting things to continue discussing.We didn’t explore this nor any other religious solutions in the film because it would have required that the film be twice as long and twice as more expensive to make. It’s really deserving of its own film.

Why have humans continuously chosen a “life destroying illusion” for so many years? What is needed to shake us out of our collective dellusion?

Humans are a pretty immature form of life in the grand scheme of things. We’re like a five year-old being handed the keys to a Corvette.

Our brains are capable of incredible things that are both beautiful and horrific and we haven’t quite figured out how to stay out of trouble. We take the lives of others because we’ve convinced ourselves that killing is a viable means of solving our problems.

“Since we cannot see as the angels see, everything we look at, even if it is demonstrably real, is at best a shadow of the truth. To take the next step, to claim that we are in full posession of the truth, is to put ourselves in the place of angels – without noticing that we passed from knowledge (angelic) to belief (human).” -James Carse

Generation after generation, we’ve inherited this belief. It is the animal inside the human that is merely trying to survive and dispose of any threats. If mice had the capacity to build a tank and an atom bomb, I’m sure there would be no cats left in the world. We are, as Freud calls it, a “sick animal”.

In my opinion, what needs to happen is a re-examination of our definition and our relationship with truth. To prove one set of beliefs more true than another is not only unknowable but un-winnable. We’ve tried that route and have created enemies out of one another and have left billions dead in our path.

Our notion of truth, or perhaps we should call it belief, is nothing more than an estimation of reality. There may sometimes be accurate estimations, but they are speculative nonetheless. What we believe to be true as five year-olds is not always the same as what we believe as 70 year-olds.

If belief can change, then belief cannot be absolutely true. It is as James Carse writes in his book The Religious Case Against Belief, “belief is not privileged over knowledge, it is fully open, unfinished, and tentative.”

In other words, truth is a work in progress. Rigid belief leaves no room for our worldviews to be inclusive of other people. We would all forever remain “the other” to one another each living within the context of our exclusive and flawed worldviews.

Learn more about the film at Flight From Death.

What do you think on death anxiety’s influence on each of us? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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For further reading, check out an interview with Jason Silva on how science will make you live forever. Then explore Further Conversations On the end of death.

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