Understanding the Power of Death

Death wields ultimate power over us, or so it seems. Having encountered it (not the theatrical versions), death shakes us of our illusions of self-power, control and imperviousness. For many of us it goes even further to make us fearful of belonging, achievement or caring. Or death drives us to overcompensating in our careers, our estate and legacy building, or risking physical health to “cheat death.”

It is my experience that understanding the power of death is too immense to understand without first understanding the power of smaller things: Other’s opinions. The boss. The judge. The barking theologian. Where does their power come from?

It comes from us. It’s really that simple. We give them the power. Each person that has authority is just like you and me: missing information, suffering from delayed connections with reality, often overwhelmed and frightened, prone to doubts and delusions. With those gaps in their makeup, they compensate and fill in the spaces with raw power. That raw power comes from their fear of their missing parts becoming visible to everyone else. Think of the man behind the curtain, operating the “Great and Terrible Oz.“

And due to gaps in our own personas, we allow them to wield that power. In effect, we give them their power. But if we were to see them as they truly are (with gaps in their personalities, intellect, experience, etc.), we would have no more fear of their power and no more reason to give them the power that keeps us from exercising our own. Think of it like the classic tale,  The Emperor’s New Clothes. He had so much power that even stripped of his “power tie” he was eagerly worshipped…until one little boy, untrained in lying about power, commented that the emperor actually didn’t have any clothes on.

So it is with death, [a word I rarely willingly capitalize except at the beginning of a sentence or as a title to an article, as I would any other word]. Death has its power over us only by our perception of its power, just as we ascribe power to human beings.  In one frightful perspective, death robs us of our loved ones or of our very body. In another perspective, death is a “final rest and deserved rest” or a “change of address” or a “going home.” Yet death happens to our bodies thousands of times a day and we take no notice of it. Our skin cells slough off, dead inner cells are carried away through the blood and organs as waste or are eaten by “friendly bacteria.”

I do not write about death this way to embrace it or to celebrate the loss of my father who was not fully ready to die. He had books he was writing as well as other projects he prized. He was not ready to leave his beloved wife. (I know these things because we talked about it right before he died.) I still insist that he died too soon and many of us have experienced similar, untimely “departures.”

The key thought here is that death need not be our worst fear. It has its power over us only as we allow it to reign over us. I see the death of loved ones as a rebirth for the survivors. (See post.) I see death as often unnecessary and something we should all work together to reduce or eventually eliminate. I hate the way death tears up families, the way governments inflict it on people of other cultures and boundaries, the helplessness it shrieks, the sense of uselessness it fosters, the joy and wisdom it deprives… But before we stop death, each of us can realize that it has no more power than “I” give it.

Once we understand and no longer fear the power of death, other fears also find a back seat in our lives. Because ultimately, no one and no thing have more power over us than death. Without death looming, we are freed to live, love, discover who we are and let others be who they are. Even the smallish things that usually drive us nuts have less power. (See Facing Down Death)

Understanding the power of death is no small thing. And this short article does not completely explain it.* It was written to let you peek at some freedom, stir your motivation and start planning your escape. Even if the human race does not eliminate death before your time, you can definitely eliminate death’s grip on your mind in this lifetime.


*For a fuller explanation of how people come to have power over us, I recommend Gerry Spence’s book How to Argue and Win Every Time. Mr. Spence has looked across the courtroom at police, judges, the law, juries, the US Government, large corporations and highly paid insurance company lawyers. His work required him to battle on the behalf of his clients and therein, he found the power to understand.

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