“What happens when self-fulfilment falls out of our hands”
by Fred van Iersel
What does the experience and management of the coronavirus crisis reveal about the general population and how we relate to death? Has our culture, our Dutch way of dealing with death, put our government under disproportionate pressure?
We must realise that the government really cannot guarantee the life of anyone. The American philosopher Judith Butler, for the same philosophical reason, even denies the “right to life” as a universal right, which the Netherlands has recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights. In fact, says Butler, no one can really guarantee this right, because we are all mortal.
Naturally this in no way excludes the government’s commitment to do everything possible to prevent the death of the most vulnerable. But Butler’s view of the “right to life” highlights the limits of that commitment. These limits touch upon Dutch culture. Prosperity and well-being have now become so enticing that we would like to keep them forever.
The Netherlands is mostly secularised. In recent decades, faith in life “after” death has declined more and more dramatically; and at the same time the desire for a long, happy and healthy life has grown to the point where people not only believe that they can desire a long life, but even that they have a “right” to a long, happy and healthy life. And who should guarantee this right? The government!
It therefore follows that many Dutch search for the meaning of life prior to death, and thus many consider health to be the highest value. It is the direct prerequisite for postponing death and engaging in meaningful activities, which consist of self-improvement and self-expression.
According to the American psychologist Roy Baumeister, the meaning of life can be understood as the result of the mutual reinforcement between self-actualization and self-esteem. This mutual reinforcement seems to make people significantly happier.
Health offers the possibility of exercising the self-actualization (control over one’s own life) that most human beings need to have self-esteem. For some people such independent control is even an essential condition for remaining alive, as is revealed, for example, in the Dutch discussions about euthanasia.
Death Successfully Repressed
Are we still capable, in our culture, of accepting death as something that is part of life? In many ancient cultures and in the early stages of European culture, people were better able to accept death than we are. Have we perhaps not only fought against death successfully, but also removed it–both collectively and individually?
They make us perfectly capable of self-realisation and self-transcendence, the icing on the cake.
Throughout the ages, people have lived with a completely opposite view of life: it was the meaning of life [faith in something] that made the fulfillment of physical and mental needs useful and meaningful [worth doing]. But nowadays Maslow’s pyramid is rearranged; the meaning of life is related to the highest levels of Maslow’s pyramid: self-actualization and self -transcendence, both of which are can be attained only after the physical and mental needs have been fulfilled.
But there is a downside: that with this vision of “meaningfulness” and personal motivation, the moral resilience of man and his culture is under attack.
This is exactly what we are discovering in the coronavirus crisis. Significance is no longer the icing on the cake, but a necessary condition for the resolution of the problem. That is why resilience is now everywhere at the top of the agendas of political culture. This reaction force is a key element of significance.
A person who is part of a culture that embraces the Maslow pyramid is not resilient. The application of Maslow’s motivational theory to our culture could be cynically summarized as follows: prosperity strengthens secularization, secularization strengthens the removal of death, and drives people to put self and self-fulfilment first. But when people finally succeed in self-realization and self-transcendence, both God and literally their needy neighbour will have disappeared from the common vision as a source of meaning; think of the sick people in the favelas scattered around the world or the inhabitants of refugee camps.
In the rich West we have much to lose. However, the West seems to have already lost to a large extent the most important thing of all: confidence in man’s origin and goal: the universal and eternal love of God.
The eternal life in the love preached by Christianity does not begin after death. It was there before we were born, it is there now and it will be “after”: it represents a dimension and a quality of existence that goes beyond the concept of time. Eternity is therefore not the abstract construction of “a fourth time” after our past, present and apparent future. In the Christian idea of eternal life, earthly life has value, but it needs fulfilment through the quality that is called “eternal life”: God as Creator gives man dignity, and as Redeemer (by becoming man) strengthens him and perfects love after death.
Not the Last Word
The Christian faith understood in this way strengthens self-esteem, inasmuch as it is good; and it diminishes the importance of total self-determination. Christianity does not believe that death has the last word on human existence: God’s love goes beyond that limit.
Death is real, but no longer omnipotent and therefore less intimidating.
Moreover, it is by no means certain that all vulnerable elderly people living in the Netherlands are of the opinion that all health care and the economy should be geared precisely towards their earthly survival. It is precisely the elderly who often know that there is no life without the certainty that we will die sooner or later, and that it is not possible to avoid every risk of dying in an absolute sense.
How do those who do not believe that death is the end of everything experience the coronavirus crisis? They do exist! But why don’t we see them and hardly ever hear them on talk shows?
Perhaps the time has not come to reflect on the culturally uncomfortable word of Jesus of Nazareth: whoever wants to save his life will lose it (Mark 8:35)?
But the meaning goes further. It reaches the foundations of our culture. Politicians cannot afford to give the impression of not defending the weak. We Dutch can in a way consider ourselves lucky for this: better a shield for the weak than an indifferent government.
However, citizens must speak out more openly about the other crucial problem in our Western culture: the ultimate futility of the need for complete control, which only intensifies our fear of death–lest the boundary between the fight against unnecessary premature death and the attempt to eliminate death will become increasingly blurred.
Dr. Fred van Iersel Ph.D. holds the endowed Chair for Religion and Ethics in the context of the Armed Forces at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, and is Professor for Social Encyclicals at the International Institute Canon Triest in Gent, Belgium.
Prof. dr. A.H.M. Fred van Iersel
Chair for Religion and Ethics in the Context of the Armed Forces,
Tilburg University, the Netherlands.