By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile” ~ David Bowie
David-Bowie Chicago 2002-08-08. Photo by Adam Bielawski. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
And so another icon has died. David Bowie abandoned this mortal coil at age 69, leaving a legacy of sound and vision that will likely never be equaled. He was a shining genius whose brilliance brought the world of music its first and finest chameleon in the forms of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane. Mythological designs, all appealing to that place in our souls that says, “Go, and be bold!” But this article is only in part about Bowie. There will be more than enough eulogies, musings and opinions about the importance of his work that will come from far better sources and writers than this humble therapist. Having said that, his death does provide us with another example of a strange, but much needed phenomena. Suddenly the world of social media is confronted with the thought, “If David Bowie can die so will I, and if that’s the case, what does this all mean?”
Big question, kids. As a professor who teaches existential psychotherapy and a therapist who holds creativity in any form in the highest possible regard, I too find these questions creeping into my thoughts especially as I grow older. These days I often find myself doing the countdown when someone I (we) know dies, “Geez, he was only 69? That’s just 19 years older than me.”
As psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says, “Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human.” Yet, there is a price to pay Charon long before we reach the river Styx. We are forever vulnerable to the wound of our own mortality. Our very existence is based on and forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, diminish and then die. Now there’s something to put on your next Christmas card.
Beware the fields of psychology and psychiatry if you are looking for any answers regarding the way you feel about meaning, death or despair. It is far better to steer your ship toward the safer and much more knowledgeable ports of philosophy, Fellow Travelers. Unless of course you wish to establish a diagnostic code or medical reason for creativity, life and mortality, perhaps even reduce it to statistical inference? Yes, I often find myself biting the hand that feeds me, mostly because it serves a menu of junk science and reductionism that is one size fits all. Who sucked the air out of life, maybe we didn’t but we sure keep the vacuum going.
Back to my thoughts on death reminding us to live: Could it be that we are but a brilliant spark between two distinct points in time? We have a birth date and an expiration date yet to be determined. Tombstones remind us of the quantity of one’s life. For Bowie, it was 1947-2016. However they don’t say anything about the quality. I suspect we should look more closely at the dash (-) in the above dates to fill in the blanks about the quality of one’s life. Some live well by definition, others not so much, but we all die. It’s the time spent here (before we go to wherever your special place is beyond this world) that counts. Sure it sounds clichéd and trite, but you can’t escape the fact that you too will (depending on your age as you read this) die within the next 50 – 20 years. What are you prepared to do?
Acknowledging our mortality forces us to accept or not accept the “loan of life” as psychoanalyst Otto Rank called it (he’s dead too). The more we avoid the acceptance of death by feeding it to our specialness, “Death happens to other people,” the more we move away from life. We begin to cower in the shadows finding the safe places to hide. This is how we are built, “death is something that happens, but not to me.”
Yet, if we took a moment to look at our lives through a creative or artistic lens rather than a quantitative one, what would we see? For one, fear of death would hardly control our day-to-day decisions as much as we loosely admit it does now. Who wants to be the wealthiest person the cemetery? Can we begin to have an adult conversation about death in our culture before it’s too late? If death is how our story is going to end then what are we doing with the middle section of this book? Am I writing these chapters on my terms, with respect and responsibility to myself and others? Have I graduated beyond the glittery despair that is an albatross around the neck of our youth oriented culture? What do I value on my life’s journey and how will I let my light shine?
If David Bowie reminded us of anything with his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust it’s this: Life is about an extraterrestrial/existential rock star that comes to earth and rocks out and tries to save the world through his music.
So what are you prepared to do today?
In good health,