The Illusion of Immortality

The late and beloved John O’Donohue remarked that one of the tragedies of modern society is the illusion of immortality. When I first read this observation by John I was initially taken aback, as I believed that he strongly believed in immortality.  It was only on a second reflection that I realised his meaning – that in our current lives we are very much led to believe that we are going to live forever.  We are not encouraged to reflect on the meaning of life, on death and what happens following death.  People clutch onto their possessions as if in holding onto their wealth they can hold onto life itself.  The sad reality is that the illusion of immortality in this life has led to people identifying themselves with what they do, achieve and acquire.  In the words of John O’Donohue ‘having has become the sinister enemy of being.’ A nurse was telling me of a medical doctor who was admitted to hospital with a serious and life-threatening illness.  When she approached him in the hospital bed, in the interest of being kind and friendly, she called him by his first name.  In spite of his illness condition, he sat bolt upright in the bed and arrogantly insisted that she address him by his title ‘Doctor!’  Nevertheless, he went on to call her by her first name!  I have no doubt that this individual had no conscious intention of being offensive, but his reaction spilled the beans on his illusion that he is going to live for ever and that ‘title’ matters.

The doctor’s response reminds me of the wise words in the Gospels, ‘What doth it profit a man should he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul.’  It was with this great loss that John O’Donohue was concerned.

Not only do people identify with their title and status, they also identify with such passing experiences as work, success, wealth, physical beauty, marriage and family.  When we remain enmeshed with anything outside of ourselves, and are reinforced by a materialistic society for doing so, it is extremely difficult for us to see the wood from the trees and the self from what we do.

I can well understand John O’Donohue’s concern of how modern society denies or covers up the reality of death.  It is not at all a benign issue that we can choose to ignore.  The immortality illusion leads to serious neglect within homes, schools, communities, workplaces and governments.  In my own clinical practice, I encounter children bereft of love due to parents’ addictions to work, success and how other people see them.  I encounter employees stressed out of their sacred minds from pressures to perform, bullying and unrealistic expectations.  I meet students who have come to hate themselves and learning due to academic pressures, threats, put downs and bleak forecasts about their future.  It is not too often recognised that what I call  process addictions (for example, to work, success, body beautiful, status, hoarding) result in as much neglect of self, children and others as do addictions to substances (for example, alcohol, food, drugs).  Whilst society condemns substance abuse, it has not tended to notice and question the threats that process addictions hold.  Any confusion of the self with anything the person feels, thinks, does, sees, hears or creates leads to the self having to hide its true nature behind the defences of delusions of grandeur, illusions that we all come from perfect families and that marriage, work, wealth and possessions will make us happy and that the present life is eternal.  True fulfilment lies in the knowing of self and the separation of self from anything outside itself and that includes living and dying.  The paradox is that living and dying become adventures when the self is not enmeshed with anything outside of it self.  In our relationships, we bring a fullness and a realness to another, rather than an emptiness and illusions.  Our work, too, is love made visible.  The priority becomes how we are with each other rather than what we can get from each other.  Authenticity is present in all our actions and the world gains immeasurably from our presence.  As a collective of individuals, it is vital we examine how we presently live our lives and what we model for children.  It certainly appears that the illusion of immortality and materialism are not bringing peace to all men and women.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Whose Life Are You Living?