De horrore memoriae: Facing our fear of being reminded

A plane crashed in the French Alps, and 150 people died[1]. This is horrible[2]. Of course – as with all catastrophes and tragedies these days – media (especially in Germany) are full of news, reports, and comments. Social media buzz with meta-comments on those news, reports, and comments. Reactions cover the full range of human emotions and attitudes, reflecting people’s own “Betroffenheit” or “Empörung” (symptomatic in their untranslatability), as well as people’s “Betroffenheit” or “Empörung” with regard to other people’s reactions[3].

Why do we – including myself writing this blog post right now – feel not only the urge to talk  about what happened[4], but also the urge to think about (and comment on) what other people might think, feel, and say about it? Of course, there are all kinds of insightful sociological[5], philosophical[6], or (meta-) cultural[7] perspectives on this, and there’s much of relevance in what they say. In addition to these, I want to suggest that an important reason why we feel the need to engage with the discussion about what happened is our fear of being reminded of some of the most fundamental insufficiencies of our human existence.

There are, I believe, four (in essence timeless) reminders that come up in this situation – and all four are very much aggravated in their poignancy for ourselves when we hear others talk about what happened in this particular desaster and about their interpretations.

Firstly, the memento mori: Of course, every death confronts us with the fact that our lives as human beings are limited, and that the actual time of our death is uncertain and beyond our control[8]. While we all know this on a rational level, we’re painfully reminded of this reality on an emotional level when we encounter somebody else’s death, let alone the sudden and violent death of 150 people. And the more surprising and unexpected that death seems to us, the more painful is the reminder of our own mortality that we experience. Now, on a day-to-day level, everyone of us has their own way of not thinking of this limitation of our lives – some believe in statistics, some in religion, some like to dwell in past memories, some like to indulge in future plans, some like to joke, some like to (day-) dream. In such ways, we go about our daily lives blissfully ignoring the fact that they can end any moment; and given that, at the same time, deep down, we always know this dire fact, we very much hold onto our own ways of covering ourselves up. As a consequence, when somebody else’s way of blanking out the reality of our limited lives is pushed onto us (as inevitably happens when people utter their views about what happened with 4U9525), we feel even more naked and exposed in our own mortality.

Secondly, the carpe diem: As a direct corollary of being reminded of our limited lives, death also reminds us of how much of our lifetime is wasted in pursuits that we ourselves ultimately perceive as not worthwhile. In other words: We’re reminded of our own standards of how we should be spending our valuable lifetime[9]. Immediately, we think of family and friends we haven’t been in touch with, places not travelled, books not read, dreams unfulfilled. Again, around these, we all have our own personal excuses and explanations that range from the hope of doing all the important stuff later to the fear of all the unwanted side effects of doing what we really want to do. And we have to cling to these excuses and explanations in order to avoid clashing with our own values on a day-to-day basis. Now, as people in their reactions to what happened with 4U9525 – explicitly or implicitly, voluntarily or involuntarily – display their values, we cannot help but be reminded of our values – and of how little our lives are actually in sync with them.

Thirdly, free will and fate: The peculiar circumstances of the crash with one pilot being locked out of his own cockpit and the other one, as it seems, deliberately initiating the descent of the plane that ended in the fatal collision[10], bring up a host of fundamental philosophical questions around responsibility, agency, free will, and fate[11]. In addition, of course, as with every plane crash or similar accident, there are stories of people who almost took this flight, but then changed their plans – another reminder of the intricacies of the workings of causes and conditions (or fate, if you prefer) in our lives. We cannot help but ask ourselves what really controls our behaviours, what and how much we can influence – and: If we’re honest with ourselves, we cannot help but suspect that we might actually be less powerful than we’d like to believe. Now, add to that the experience that others have their own interpretations of the causal chains that led to the accident: What a pain to feel that not only are we less in control than we thought, but that, in addition to that, even our theories of control are challenged by other theories. An emotional double take of a let-down of the worst kind.

Fourthly, the chariot of our soul: The speculations about possible motives that drove the co-pilot to initiate the final descent of the plane bring us face to face with the power that non-rational forces can have on our decisions and actions. Regardless of medical conditions (that might or might not influence how we think and act), we all find ourselves under the spell of anger, passion, indifference, jealousy, arrogance, and so many other emotions, and we all know how these distort what goes on in our minds and what we do[12]. Of course, fortunately, for most of us most of the time these distortions do not result in the death of 150 people. Still, consciously or unconsciously, we’re all busy interpreting what happened in a way that is as remote as possible from our own experiences of doing inconsistent things (in order to protect ourselves from the terrible idea that we, too, could do something like this). Busy with this exercise of internal self-protection, hearing others’ explanations (that are, by definition, not designed to protect us) carries the risk of becoming vulnerable in our own inconsistencies and irrationalities.

These four reminders are immutable aspects of human life – and still (or rather: because of that) we fear them a lot. Maybe, what makes us even more sensitive and upset about them today is that we’re not (or no longer) very used to deliberately contemplating them on a regular basis. And maybe, instead of getting into fights with others about the right (or wrong) ways of interpreting what happened, we could use this occasion as an opportunity to turn to ourselves and revisit our own existence as mortal, distracted, powerless, and irrational beings. And maybe this reflection can connect us not only with ourselves, but also with all others who are suffering from that same condition – and with all those who died when 4U9525 crashed into the mountains near Seyne-les-Alpes.

[1] Right now, everybody will know what accident I’m referring to. In a few days or weeks, this might be different. I’m talking about the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 en route from Barcelona (headed to Dusseldorf) on March 24, 2015 near Seyne-les-Alpes. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Most sudden deaths are horrible, in particular for those who lose loved ones. These days, someone on the internet posted Mascha Kaléko’s beautiful poem “Memento” which describes just this: “Vor meinem eignen Tod ist mir nicht bang / Nur vor dem Tode derer, die mir nah sind. / Wie soll ich leben, wenn sie nicht mehr da sind? / Allein im Nebel tast ich todentlang / Und laß mich willig in das Dunkel treiben. / Das Gehen schmerzt nicht halb so wie das Bleiben. / Der weiß es wohl, dem gleiches widerfuhr; / — Und die es trugen, mögen mir vergeben. / Bedenkt: den eignen Tod, den stirbt man nur, /
Doch mit dem Tod der andern muß man leben.” – Quoted from [retrieved Mar 27, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] The latter is some variation on the equally untranslatable feeling of “Fremdschämen”, i.e. feeling embarrassed on behalf of somebody else’s attitude or behaviour. BACK TO TEXT

[4] If it was only the urge to talk about what happened, it could easily be explained by the fact that it was (and is) very present in our collective attention right now – but in that, it wouldn’t be any different from the previous week’s solar eclipse (where, at least to my knowledge and maybe apart from the omnipresent discussion about the need for special glasses to watch the eclipse, practically nobody started commenting on and critiquing other’s reflections about the event). BACK TO TEXT

[5] For this perspective, just go back to Ulrich Beck’s classic work “Risikogesellschaft” (1986). BACK TO TEXT

[6] See all of Nassim Taleb’s work, the ultimate authority on everything probabilistic – all further reading here [retrieved Mar 27, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] See, for example, Sascha Lobo’s reflection on the lack of a popular culture of mourning in today’s (social media) universe, [retrieved Mar 27, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] Other times had ways of making this reality more present in daily life, such as [retrieved Mar 27, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[9] With this, I do not want to imply that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to spend one’s life, but rather that everyone of us has their own standards of what a fulfilled life feels like – and that most of us readily admit that we do not live up to these standards all the time. On a very mundane level, the amount of thinking that goes into time management issues is a good indicator for this. For more on this, see a blog post on another (currently inactive) blog that I started together with a colleague a while ago: BACK TO TEXT

[10] This is the status of the insights as I write in the afternoon of March 27, 2015. BACK TO TEXT

[11] A masterful fictional treatment of these issues can be found in Paul Auster’s “Oracle Night” (2003). Other novels by Paul Auster are equally relevant for many of the aspects discussed here. BACK TO TEXT

[12] For the most classical reflections on this issue, go back to Plato’s Φαῖδρος. BACK TO TEXT

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