The Problem of Existential Avoidance

Why we're having such a hard time dealing with the pandemic.

Posted May 14, 2020

Jakub Kriz/Unsplash
The Road to Nowhere
Source: Jakub Kriz/Unsplash

America is in denial. After watching COVID-19 sweep across the globe, the United States is now the center of the pandemic, leading in both infections and deaths. Still, many refuse to plainly admit that a global pandemic should rightly disrupt our personal and professional lives, instead pushing to get life and business back to normal as fast as possible.

Why are some so resistant to acknowledge that a public health crisis deserves a departure from our typical routines and regular life? The answer lies in how the pandemic arouses our deepest existential fears—ones that we’ve become so adept at denying.

The coronavirus disaster has exposed an uncomfortable reality that none of us want to face: We’re going to die.

Not everyone will die of this disease, but its unwelcome presence reminds us of our own mortality, our frail vulnerability, and the ironic certainty that our future is wildly uncertain. Our greatest existential fear is death, and our nation is facing this squarely. In 1974, anthropologist Ernest Becker was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for writing The Denial of Death, which highlighted how we humans are motivated to deny our own vulnerability and notoriously defend against the reality that we, like everything else that has ever lived, are destined to eventually perish. A long line of psychological research has indicated that managing this death anxiety may play a role in a vast array of human behavior, ranging from prejudice and violence to rampant consumerism and environmental degradation. In short, our existential avoidance can bring out the uglier side of our humanity. 

Just as 9/11 reminded Americans of our vulnerability and that a long life is not guaranteed, a worldwide pandemic casts our mortality in bold relief. Facing our deep existential fears can create feelings of terror, which must be managed, and denial is often our drug of choice.

Some of us avoid this harsh reality through the escapism offered by binging TV, food, or exercise. Some of us ignore that there is a problem at all, finding comfort in fringe media or religion. Still others seek to make this uncomfortable reality simply go away by rushing the restart of an economy that must consistently yield hefty returns in retirement accounts and sizable dividends to investors. Our national response to this pandemic mirrors our response to death: We just want it to go away.  

We ignore this existential reality and we preoccupy ourselves with pursuits aimed at securing elusive immortality. Some seek immortality in their professional accomplishments that will earn them a legacy, others through accumulating wealth and possessions, and yet there are those who try to do so through making the world a better place. Indeed, there are better ways than others to deal with this existential malaise, but as Thomas Hardy noted, “If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst.” If we’re ever going to come to terms with our mortality and find healthy ways of responding, we first have to accept its reality.

Just as we don’t know when or how we’re going to die, we don’t know when or how this pandemic will resolve. The uncertainty about how this virus plays out mirrors the uncertainty of death, which is unsettling—so we push to get life back to normal. We want to know when life will resume as normal, when we can put all of this behind us, and when we can forget this altogether, like a terrible nightmare. We long for the days when we’ll act as if this whole thing never happened.

All of these are manifestations of our denial, after an unwelcome reminder that like those claimed by this terrible disease, we, too, one day will succumb to death. Death awaits us all, but we decide how to spend the time we have until we die.

You see, realizing that life is impermanent imbues each moment with a little more weight because we realize that each one is a precious gift.

So let’s resolve ourselves to live meaningfully, honestly acknowledging the truth that life is fragile, time is fleeting, and death is certain—and rather than ignore, avoid, or deny these realities, may we engage this time with greater clarity for our values, a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for what we do have, in richer authenticity to ourselves and others, so that we might invest in those relationships we deeply cherish and seek to make the world a better place. Rather than denial and avoidance, let’s face the reality of human frailty and our own mortality with a courageous sense of resolve and acceptance.

Denying our death won’t make it go away. It simply dilutes our lives by robbing us of the urgency of a finite existence.