Existential GPS

How does your light shine?

by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC, DCC

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

Two years have passed since 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. Bowie is missed by all those who knew him personally and all those of legions of fans who are left to remember him through his music.

HBO premiered David Bowie: The Last Five Years this month. The documentary speaks volumes about the man’s life and his acceptance of death. But this article is only in part about Bowie. There have been more than enough eulogies, musings and opinions about the importance of his work that have sprung from far better sources and writers than this humble therapist. This article is more about what happened to him and what will happen to all of us. Bowie’s death, like that Prince’s just a few months later, presented us with a strange, but much needed phenomena. Suddenly the world of social media and pop culture was confronted with this question, “If David Bowie can die so will I, and if that’s the case, what does this all mean?”

As a professor who teaches existential psychotherapy and a therapist who holds all forms of art in the highest possible regard, I too find this question creeping into my thoughts in the wee hours of the night. Then I often find myself doing the numbers game, “Geez, he was only 69? That’s only 17 years older than I am now.”

As psychotherapist Irvin Yalom said, “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 to the way you feel about meaning, death or despair. It is far better to steer your ship toward the open and didactic seas of philosophy, Fellow Travelers. Unless you wish to set course for a diagnostic code to explain away creativity, life and mortality, maybe even reduce your existence to a 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 the human sciences didn’t, but we sure keep that vacuum going.

Could it be that we are but a brilliant light 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, that doesn’t say much about the quality. I suspect we should look more closely at the dash (-) in the above dates to fill in the blanks about one’s existence.  Some live well, 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 may sound clichéd and trite, but you can’t escape the fact that you too will (depending on your age as you read this) expire within the next 50 – 20 years.

What are you prepared to do between now and then?

Acknowledging our mortality forces us to accept the loan of life, to paraphrase psychoanalyst Otto Rank (he’s dead too). The more we avoid the acceptance of death by shielding it with our specialness, the more we reject life. We begin to cower in the shadows, embracing the safer places to hide, as we whistle in the dark to the tune of death is something that happens, but not to me.

Yet, if we took a moment to look at our lives through a creative 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. What other questions might we want to ask? Perhaps, 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? What do I value on my life’s journey and how will I let my light shine?

So, just maybe, if David Bowie’s life and death meant anything it’s this: Ziggy Stardust was an extraterrestrial/existential rock star who came to earth, rocked out and tried to save the world through his music.

What will you do today?

In good health,

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