“We must confront death”

A desperate person in a hospital bed © KieferPix (shutterstock)

Life in its fullness and experiences of resonance with nature: these are themes that the Berlin philosopher and biologist Andreas Weber deals with. In interview, he talks about missed opportunities in Corona pandemic.

CBA: In their publications they deal with all shades of life. Have we learned to appreciate life more again through Corona?

Andreas Weber (philosopher and biologist): I don't think so, even though it would be a good occasion to do just that. To let life touch us more again, that could be a good lesson from Corona. But before that, we must make a radical turnaround and turn away from the numbing that comes from the consumption of goods, vacations, or even constant work. It's the only way we can experience and engage with the moment – both the beautiful and the painful – and what's really happening right now.
CBA: What prevents us from doing so?
Weber: We would then also have to confront death again, that is, the fact that everything has an end. But we are not used to that at all anymore. We try as a society to exclude death as much as possible. And a means for this are the things that allow us to live carefree or distracted or saturated with happiness hormones. But that hides reality as it actually is.
CBA: What is the reality?

Weber: It is a permanent transformation, a constant re-arranging of the ephemeral. We exist for a temporary time as individuals and then dissolve again into the great whole that keeps producing new individuals. One cannot escape this constant transformation in nature, to which we also belong.

One can only deceive or anesthetize oneself and try to ignore this fact. And this has worked for the last 200 years or more with the means of economic growth. We manage to produce so many products for our supposed bliss that we no longer have to confront the lawfulness of constant transformation and always new coming into being and new passing away.

CBA: Do you think Corona has changed people's attitude toward death because the subject has moved closer?
Weber: That would be desirable. At the beginning of the pandemic, many thought Corona would make people think and wake up. At the moment I do not see that yet. We're more trying to hold our breath and get through this. There is also a chance that we will find vaccines that work reasonably well.

I rather have the feeling that people try to close their eyes and just not to say: stop with the distraction, now I try to live more in the moment. Or I try to accept this radically open, indeterminate thing in the flow of my life and thereby also accept in myself that which is not subject to optimization.

CBA: Why do we humans at all find it so difficult to accept the law of life and death, which actually every child knows??
Weber: This is probably the key question to our civilization.

Of course, death and dying are not pleasures; every individual tries to avoid death. Because it is a real imposition. For earlier cultures, however, the realization was self-evident that death is urgently necessary for life so that new life can grow again.

We can't abolish death if we don't want to abolish life as well. Instead, we must learn to deal with pain and understand the painful. But our culture in the past centuries has tried to abolish or sweep under the carpet what is painful.

CBA: How do you explain this evasive maneuver?

Weber: I am also puzzling over this question and would like to have a good hypothesis as to when and why human culture in the Occident decided to ignore this law of life.

But when we cling desperately to this one existence, we tend to let others go over the edge; we become pitiless, sending others to their doom. This can be seen very well in our civilization: on the one hand in interpersonal relations and in the terrible racisms, but of course also in the way people treat non-human living beings.

CBA: What would be the alternative?
Weber: If we accept that we share with all life the experience of living and dying, then this could unite us with all. There would be a fundamental solidarity with all forms of life. Buddhism speaks of the experience of bottomless compassion: all living beings are in this life situation, which once leads to a death situation. In this respect we are all equal, no one is superior to the other.

CBA: That is, even Christianity with its hope of resurrection has not been able to take away people's fear of death?

Weber: Thus, unfortunately, Christianity has raised the hope that we can immunize ourselves against death by behaving in the right way. And that we cannot find eternal life in the togetherness of all beings.

CBA: In indigenous thought, about which you wrote an essay, there is a completely different understanding of life and death…

Weber: For indigenous, animistic cultures, death is not an absolute conclusion as it is for us, but a transitional stage. Death is the end of a particular existence, of the body in which we sit here, but it is the beginning of another existence – possibly in another body or in the realm of spirits and ancestors, that is, woven into the total body of living beings. That is why death is not the absolute horror for them as it is for us. Death is only a station on the journey of life, not the bumper at the terminal station.
CBA: Animistic thinking is considered outdated, but you show that it can contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the world and its survival even in the face of our ecological crisis.

Weber: I do not consider animism outdated at all, but rather a possible perspective for the future. Animism seems outdated if it is misunderstood as a superstition, as it was in early industrial and Christian societies. For animists, we don't live in a world full of things, but full of persons. Everyone has wishes, interests and can communicate with us.

And at the moment, very current discussions, including scientific ones, take up again many positions of this animistic thinking. These include the idea that we can perceive the Earth not just as a neutral climate system, but as an actor. What seems to come along as a philosophical and scientific revolution, already peoples before 200.000 years thought similarly.

CBA: What conclusions do you draw from this?

Weber: The inner attitude then changes: if the world does not consist of inanimate things that one can consume without limits and without care, but of persons with whom one must enter into good behavior, then one is constantly called upon to relate and to be respectful. You can't just do what you want and build a golden wall around yourself and your environment.

The interview was conducted by Angelika Praub.

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