The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. — 1 Corinthians 15:26
The fight-or-flight response can be defined as “the biological response of animals to acute stress.” However, these innate, mutually exclusive responses are simply inapplicable when applied to death.
While there are both antiquated methods to “fight” death (elixirs, elaborate religious ceremonies, and herbal anti-aging treatments) and new age approaches in pharmaceuticals and genetics, death is impossible to defeat. Therefore, when it comes to considering the cessation of one’s own life, fear and denial trigger the flight response.
Taking into account that humans are the only living beings knowledgeable enough to comprehend that they are simultaneously alive and doomed to die, people express anxiety about death. In addition, people fret over deserting their loved ones and spreading sadness. What’s more, apprehension occurs in the anticipation of discovering if life after death indeed exists.
Cross-culturally, men and women ponder how the world will function without them, how their family and friends will cope with their death, and how those close to them will find comfort, security, and happiness through the grief. Think about it: in the event of your death, will the company you work for crumble? Will your spouse find love again? Will your kids’ kids have kids?
Speaking of adolescents, a long look into the face of an infant can truly reveal the power of life. Given that the human brain has a high level of plasticity during a child’s formative years (birth to three years of age), a baby represents fearlessness, innocence, and as close to a sense of immortality as one can imagine.
This is why Patrick Shen’s and Greg Bennick’s documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality begins with the faces of children. In its opening lines, Flight from Death asserts the fragility of human life: “To have emerged from nothing…to having a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression…and with all this, yet to die.”
From there, the film branches out in several directions, all of which center upon Ernest Becker’s death anxiety ideology showcased in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Various professors, authors, philosophers, and researchers (like Sheldon Solomon, Sam Keen, Dan Liechtry, Robert Jay Lifton, and Irvin Yalom) voice their scholarly views in support of and in relation to Becker’s claim that death anxiety motivates violence and aggression. The result is both thought-provoking and revealing.
Some of the very best material arrives in narrator Gabriel Byrne’s (through Shen and Bennick’s writing) words when he reads, “Human beings find themselves in quite the predicament. We have the mental capacity to ponder the infinite — seemingly capable of anything. Yet, housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying body, we are godly, yet creaturely.” Likewise, Professor Sheldon Solomon exudes brilliance (through his terror management theory and mortality salience hypothesis) in nearly every word that leaves his lips.
At its weakest, Flight from Death loses its intimate connection when it goes global in its “Annihilation,” “Looking for Evil,” and “Violence Inherent” chapters. While these portions clarify the violence involved in the flight response, the segments that focus on a personal view of death anxiety are more profound than the attempts to paint the vast, cross-cultural picture.
In the long run, Flight from Death will cause you to dig deeper into the words of Ernest Becker, marinate in the thoughts of its writers, and seriously consider traveling afar to listen to the intensely engaging Professor Sheldon Solomon. It’s full of beautiful images of grave sites, landscapes, and sunrises juxtaposed with brutal images of murder, violence, and outright shameful hatred. It’s both eye-opening and daunting.
Just as certain as death itself, one thing’s for sure: Flight from Death will never lose its relevance. At times, it’s so utterly philosophical, didactic, and life-affirming that one can’t help but to submit to its intrigue and run to recommend it to every fellow sentient being. After all, “meaningful connections with other people make us feel fully alive and vibrant.”