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Randy Pausch and Death Anxiety: It’s okay to feel terror in the face of death

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you.

A good sentiment for sure, but one that seems to me to be problematic if taken too far. I’m with him that it isn’t productive to wallow in self pity, but he seems to go further, implying that self-pity is not okay as an emotion to feel. Which seems odd to me because I think feeling some self-pity when you are dying is a perfectly normal and reasonable thing. Allowing yourself permission to feel self-pity is a type of relaxation of vigilance. It’s allowing the organic terror of death to be expressed; an acknowledging of what is happening. It isn’t good for mental health reasons or many other reasons to stay in that feeling and wallow in it, but I think that people could experience a different sort of avoidable mental health problem if they experienced themselves as not allowed to feel and accept the feelings they are actually experiencing. Even if those feelings are terrifying, they are still emotional reality.

Many people write us to share their emotional state. Frequently, people writing us are depressed and despondent, self-pitying and pessimistic. This is a painful way to exist, and we give what guidance we can to those who write so that they can help themselves feel better. Quite consciously, we never do this by suggesting that it isn’t okay to have these feelings. However inadvertently, I think this is what Pausch may have ended up communicating. 

If Pausch was censoring or controling his emotions, he had his reasons, I’m sure. I’m very conscious, for one thing, of the fact that Pausch and his wife have three very young children, and that his activities with regard to his lecture and the book based upon that lecture are dedicated to those children and ultimately intended to convey a message to them. Pausch may have appropriately decided to present an optimistic face for them, with the idea or hope that this they might suffer less if he did that.

Self-pity is a private emotion, and Pausch’s last lecture is anything but private. We can’t know what he experienced in the privacy of his own mind, or in front of family alone. But I expect that his private experience was richer and more varied than the unwavering optimism we see in the lecture. I make this point because I fear that some people watching the Last Lecture may compare themselves to Dr. Pausch and find themselves wanting because they are not so fiercely optimistic. Therefore, it’s important to keep the following in mind if you are not naturally an optimist yourself and you want to watch the lecture without starting to feel cynical or hopeless in comparison to the guy. It’s in part a performance he’s putting on. He’s a human being; he’s likely terrified of dying just like you are; he’s making the best of it; you only get to see his public face. It’s not realistic for you to hold yourself to his standard, because you don’t have all the information about how he really felt privately that you’d need to make a fair comparison.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Dr. Pausch in any way, though I realize it could easily seem like one. More to the point, I’m suggesting that there is likely more to the story then we have been allowed to see, and that sometimes what looks like a natural strength is also a form of coping.  The guy was incredibly courageous, thoughtful and compassionate and forced to cope with a worst case scenario that would test anyone. I understand that Pausch spent the last period of his life doing what he could (such as securing a book deal) to provide for his family after his death. I respect the hell out of that. I have only sympathy for his wife and children, who are surely in a lot of pain right now.

Anyway, I’m interested in how people have responded to the Last Lecture; if I’m the only one out there who felt there was an overly positive quality to it, and if in general people have found it to be inspiring, or intimidating.  If you care to leave a comment, that would be helpful.

Keep Reading By Author Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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