Symbolic Immortality

Thoughts About the Future

Being conscious of our potential mortality creates fear and anxiety concerning an uncertain future. Confronting death often gives one a greater appreciation of one’s life.

These thoughts and feelings were well expressed by Harvard psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, MD, who discussed the human need for symbolic immortality and the confrontation with the nature of human existence when people contemplate death. His book, The Broken Connection, 1979, pointed out how important it is to understand how people, when facing a life crisis, such as a diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, a stroke, or a critical accident, become aware of their potential mortality.

Legacy Lessons of Symbolic Immortality

We can all imagine and anticipate concerns about our death and the uncertainty and anxiety common at the end of our lives. Death represents both the physical and mental annihilation of life. Most humans hope for some form of future immortality for our philosophy, our deeds and our souls.

The term “symbolic immortality” refers to what remains from our lives after death. These may be material (such as what we have built, created, or given birth to) or ephemeral (such as our thoughts, our values, our jokes, our network of friendships, or our acts of kindness: helping persons in distress, being generous with charity, or doing a good deed).

Freud, for example, after sixteen years of treatment for the painful and humiliating symptoms of mouth cancer, was more concerned about the possible loss of his theories than the loss of his life. He’d undergone a transformation from his earlier fear of death to its mastery, but worried, “What will they do with my theory after my death? Will it still resemble my basic thoughts?” His hope for symbolic immortality was that his theories would live on after his death. Jung, a Protestant visionary, on the other hand, believed both in the pre-modern and modern Christian hope of resurrection and immortality. He was more concerned about the state of his soul.

There are four major types of Symbolic Immortality; the first three are the most universal.

1.  Biologic Symbolic Immortality

Most people feel that even after dying, there is hope of an afterlife, with an immortal soul: “I can live on in mankind.”

This provides continuity of a family’s heritage and the passing of memories from generation to generation. The biological symbolic immortality of a family continues after one’s death through the meaning of their life continuing as one’s spirit lives on through one’s children, grandchildren and family, emphasizing history, memories, stories and one’s philosophy of life.

We’d like to transmit our thoughts and values to our family, children and future generations before we die so they will live on as our heritage. This legacy often reflects our cultural and ethical values, including information about our social inheritance and achievements reflecting the values of our family. Our biologic symbolic immortality legacy is a continuation of our lives through our descendants after we die.

2.  Theological or Religious Symbolic Immortality

The belief in life after death is seen in most religions and spiritual practices. The family’s belief in a higher authority is symbolized, for example, by the clergy of Western religions, or Shinto Buddhism, and also seen in the power of leaders and kings of the Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires. Life after death is not a traditional view in Buddhist or Jewish (other than Orthodox) religious philosophies.

In Christianity, there is a fundamental tranquility in spiritual achievement that is symbolized in Christ’s story: life continues in heaven after death with an immortal soul. Muslims have a somewhat different philosophy of a life after death. Islam makes it quite clear that life in the hereafter is of a physical nature, in which bodies will be restored to live either in Paradise or in Hell.  Buddha, Moses, Christ, and Muhammad all combine spiritual revelations with ethical principles. The afterlife, with an immortal soul, is an ancient mythological theme, involving death, rebirth and resurrection.

Many patients think about the afterlife and question – is there a heaven? There is no exact answer as philosophically it is a part of your religious or spiritual belief. Heaven for  many is the image of God and the question is, is it everlasting? The dead are not lost, as they can remain as an everlasting memory of your family. Of note is the statement by philosopher Joseph Campbell who believed:

“The power of belief includes both love and bliss, and if there is an inner voice you have inside of you, you are reflecting your spirit. The birth of compassion is how we learn to live each day through rituals, spiritual beliefs, and the life of a higher source.”

Schopenhauer, the great philosopher, felt that events in your life are part of your life plot - you are the agent influencing yourself, your life, and the lives of others, and this life has a purpose, which is what you follow. The journey is what counts, not the destination.

Joseph Campbell also believed that we don’t know if there is a heaven, hell or afterlife, so we should act as if this life is all we will get.

3.  Creative Symbolic Immortality

When one is creative through art, literature, a great discovery in science or in doing a humble, benevolent, kind act for someone in need, one has also created an example of creative symbolic immortality. In this way one escapes death by living afterwards through acts and accomplishments which will be remembered for generations and possibly centuries.

The creative domain can truly leave a long-term legacy; consider, for instance, Leonardo Da Vinci’s creation of the Mona Lisa - this one act will have everlasting creative symbolic immortality.

Physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, teachers and others often provide another form of creative symbolic immortality through their acts which make a difference in other people’s lives.

From this point of view, being creative through benevolence can make a lasting  difference in another person’s life. Each individual has the capacity to influence and help change another’s future. In one of the Life Tape interviews, a patient remarked about a friend: “Her goodwill towards people in general and her family is something I really admire and have learned from - and other people have as well.”

Thus the recipients of a kindness may not only have their status improved, but also can help others.   In another Life Tape interview, a patient stated: “Since my cancer diagnosis, I have received more love from everyone I know. It’s been an outpouring of love I never knew existed.” This experience not only had a positive impact through human kindness and appreciation but also was transmitted into helping others. One survivor said: “The fact that we are together has totally changed my outlook on what I am going to do with my life.”  

This is called “passing down” a learned lesson through what is a common life struggle. Another patient said “I learned from your struggle too,” which led to a change in a family member, affecting not only himself but all the members of his family. Using the Life Tape Project with cancer patients showed how patients could serve as models to their families on how to better face life, dying and death. The proximity of their own death made many of them more, not less, important to their loved ones.

4.  Symbolic Immortality of Nature

Nature also exemplifies symbolic immortality. It is everywhere and limitless and will survive forever. “The state may collapse, but the mountains and rivers will remain forever.” (Old Japanese saying)

Following the atomic bomb explosions in Japan in 1945 the trees appeared dead, but in the springtime, the cherry blossoms came back, reflecting the ability of nature to regenerate. In a sense, we participate in “eternity” through our appreciation and understanding of the persistent life and death cycles of nature.

Expressions of the first three of the four symbolic immortality domains were evident in Life Tape interviews. The patients’ values, achievements and thoughts were recalled and recorded to pass on to future generations, providing a continuation of their lives and values to be remembered after their death by their descendants.

Patients in the Life Tape Project appreciated the psychological and emotional value of symbolic immortality, which helped promote their feelings of their continuity with the future by identifying their ties to the family, and through their biologic, religious, spiritual and creative acts in art and science or acts of kindness for others.

Working though the Life Tape process with a focus on symbolic immortality helped patients reduce their existential (based on the experience of existence – life and death) anxiety about death, as well as promoting feelings of well-being and appreciation of life. It also helped promote better interfamily relationships through improved communication and emotional support and decreased isolation and anxiety. In addition, the experience helped promote a better sense of self-worth and improved understanding of their own life experience. Finally, it promoted dignity and closure, and helped support palliative care if needed for a better quality of life at the end of life.



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