Why Choose to Keep Living When Life Is So Damned Hard?
I have always been fascinated with death. I worked as a terminal care nurse in the 1970s and 1980s. During those years as part of my job and also a result of my personal curiosity, I interviewed and counseled thousands of people about their feelings about death and dying.
I attended hundreds of deaths. I can attest that the process of dying is, in and of itself, painless. I do not fear the process of dying, and due to my belief in reincarnation and eternal life, I do not fear death (what comes after one dies).
Now I am a middle-aged woman who chooses to keep living despite a handful of illnesses. I see countless people struggle to keep living under the worst of circumstances. Popular media bombards us with negativity and hopelessness. Depression is rampant. Suicide is a very real component of society. Suicide rates by state ranged from 5.5 to 23.37 per 100,000 population in 2004 (Care). My fascination has shifted from death to what makes people want to stay alive. What is the underlying drive to stay alive?
It is a common misperception that human beings possess an innate desire to keep the species alive. This is referred to as the biological imperative. While most scientists do agree that single-celled organisms possess a true biological imperative, two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University Dr. Steven Pinker contends the true biological imperative in humans is sex drive, and not reproduction or a need to keep the species alive (Pinker). His research proves his point. In short, if humans possessed a true need to propagate, men would line up at sperm banks instead of strip clubs.
Many Christians believe they are charged by God to multiply and replenish the Earth. Yet Christian scripture references only two instances of “multiply and replenish” – once when mankind began in the Garden of Eden, and again after the world population was decimated following Noah’s flood. Thus the so-called “biological imperative” does not exist in either our innate biology or our souls (according to Christianity’s teachings).
So perhaps our motivation is less a desire to stay alive and more a fear of death? Human beliefs about death fall into three broad spectrums: resurrection, reincarnation, and ceasing to exist (Death). Individual beliefs exercise great influence on how people view life and death. Some religions teach there is a literal Hell. Some religions as well as many atheists believe that once we die, we cease to exist. Religions that teach resurrection promise life everlasting. And spiritualities that teach reincarnation tend to look forward to the next progression in life’s cycle.
It is understandable that people would fear death if it means spending an eternity of torment in a blazing river of fire. Although mainstream Christians tend to believe in the existence of a literal Hell, the promise of forgiveness of sins eliminates the need to spend eternity in Hell and should relieve believers of that reason to fear death. Those who believe in reincarnation after death rarely fear death and tend to look forward to the next progression.
That would seem to suggest that only those who believe existence ends at the moment of death have reason to avoid it. We know from popular culture that is far from reality; people of all beliefs hang onto life and fight to live every day. Rationally or not, people fear dying and death, the great underlying leveler of mankind – the process each of us must undergo at some point despite our station in life.
Fears include concerns for survivors; the aspect of not knowing what happens after we die; the loss of control; as well as pain, illness, or loss of dignity (Fritscher). The natural process of dying is painless; when coupled with disease or injury, it can be complicated by pain and a resultant fear of loss of dignity occurs.
Still, I feel compelled to frame the question in the positive: Why do we choose to keep living? Does an entire species fight to stay alive solely out of fear of death? Life is hard. The world is in a mess. Sometimes people just want the pain to stop. The illusion is that giving up would be easier than struggling toward the pinnacle of that Matterhorn of Existence, pickaxe in hand, “uphill both ways in the snow.”
I surveyed 75 people to gain some external insights about hopelessness and methods of coping with hopelessness. The respondents are primarily female (85.5%), under 30 (82.6%), and 67.6% feel they are better able to cope now than when they were younger. One-third of respondents (25) admitted to one or more chronic medical conditions and all but one found Life harder because of it, Those same 24 who find Life more difficult also perceive themselves better able to cope with hopelessness as they grow older.
The inevitability of death can contribute to both the fear of or lack of fear of death. My survey results revealed two motivations which demonstrate resignation to the unavoidability of death (negative – “I’m helpless; death is unavoidable,” “Nothing I can do will change it”) and (positive – “It is what it is so I may as well live as long as possible”).
I keep on living for several reasons. Love: I genuinely love and adore my family and friends and want to spend more time with them. Expected Reward: I’ve invested so much into my marriage, I intend to reap those benefits. I did the hard stuff when I was younger and now I want to enjoy watching my children and grandchildren continue to develop. I’ve spent a lifetime learning to write and I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Altruism: Also, I have so much to give back to the community now. I consider myself a golden resource. I also believe in reincarnation and in the concept that I still have lessons to learn in this dispensation.
Respondents’ positive motivations for choosing to continue living involve hope, optimism, and altruism, as well as a sense of incompletion. Survey results include “I believe things are going to get better,” “I can help others./have a positive influence on others,” “I’m not finished here yet,” “I am curious about the future,” and “I want to watch my children/ grandchildren grow up.” Concern for others is another motivation to continue living (“I don’t want my family to have to deal with the fallout from my suicide”).
The last question in my survey asked subjects to list at least one joy they look forward to in life. My purpose for asking this was twofold: I wanted to end a potentially depressing questionnaire on a hopeful, positive note. I also wanted to know what sorts of things motivate people to keep living. In no particular order, people most often chose: physical contact with others (lovers, family members, babies); sensual Nature experiences (sights, smells, touch, and sounds); smells, sights, and tastes of food; the sensation/perception of being loved by and loving another; health or regaining health; sleep or feeling rested. (Individuals)
My conclusion is that while there is an underlying concern, however irrational, with the process of dying, the mysteries of Death, and the uncertainties of the right- or wrongfulness of ending their own lives, most people choose to keep living despite feelings of hopelessness because they expect or anticipate that their situation will improve, they aren’t ready to relinquish physical sensation, and they want to connect or reconnect with others.
There’s something to be said for curling up with someone you love in front of a crackling fireplace, toasting marshmallows while feeling their breath on your hair, and sharing an ice cream cone, that just makes you believe Life will get better. There is something to be said for being in the present. There is something to be said for Love.
Care, Mental Health America and Thomson Health. "Ranking America's Mental Health: An Analysis of Depression Across the States." 2012. Mental Health America.net. Web site. 2012.
Death. n.d. Web site. 24 March 2012.
Fritscher, Lisa. Thanatophobias. 30 April 2011. Web site. 24 March 2012.
Individuals, Survey of 75. Interview. Ginger Hamilton Caudill. March 2012. Internet Survey Tool.
Pinker, Steven A. "Genetic Mandate or Social Impulse?" n.d. American Radio Works. Web site. 24 March 2012.