We arrive here with few clues as to where we came from, and even fewer clues as to where we’re headed. Our time here on earth is but a fleeting tiny little stopover; the only certainty before us is death. Whether we claim to be religious or nonreligious matters little. I think what matters more, much much more, is the extent to which we have reflected on our lives and acted upon the fruits of those reflections with sincerity, commitment and courage.
Dealing directly with philosophic and religious issues of death and dying and the meaning of life brings us face to face with what may be the last and greatest taboo of American life. These subjects are seldom the topic of conversation at the typical American dinner party, or even in intimate discussions among friends, where people are much more likely to focus on work, family problems, the economic and political issues of the day. Discussions about moral and spiritual questions are seldom encouraged; and if you do bring them up, you run the risk of offending your host or putting off people.
This aversion to spiritual and existential matters makes sense. We want answers, not problems; and we certainly do not want uncertainties. And I think we realize—even if perhaps only subconsciously—that when dealing honestly with spiritual and moral questions we are dealing in mysteries, the insolubility of which we find deeply discomforting and unsettling.
And much of what we call daily American life is about this discomfort and the manifold ways we seek to deny or avoid it—a problem that is further magnified by the many subtle and not so subtle ways that our capitalistic advertising-driven society discourages reflection in order to promote impulsivity and spending and encourage consumption. As Roy Walsh, a psychiatry professor in San Francisco, put it—
“[Y]ou can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent in avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities that attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There’s a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, ‘tranquilization by the trivial.’ And I think our culture has mastered this better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.”
(Abridged and adapted from Phillip L. Berman, “The Search For Meaning,” pp. 5-6)