Test question: when you’re having a conversation with someone that you don’t really know, what are two subject areas that you’re definitely going to avoid?
Hint: they’re both subjects which are completely taboo. They’re also the bookends to our lives as humans, and pivotal to our experiences and understanding of the world.
These two topics are, of course, sex and death.
We don’t talk about these subjects much in North American culture. While Mexican culture celebrates the Day of the Dead and countries like the Netherlands are open to discussions about sexuality, Canadians are generally pretty closed-mouthed when it comes to mentioning them. The topics instead become fodder for gossip, are actively repressed, and are hidden beneath facades of prudery. Literature picks up these rich sources of psychological stress and translates them into characters, morals, and fables (e.g. classic example: The Scarlet Letter, or the more contemporary example: Fifty Shades of Grey).
I recently watched a video in the Big Think series in which Rabbi Shmuley Boteach talks about the dying institution of marriage:
In cultures where people have disposable incomes and endless choices about how to spend their time, he argues, the taboo act of sex is unlikely to be high on their priority list. Marriage is seen as a stable state of being, rather than a passionate one, and consequently many people are choosing to live as singles or in ‘serial monogamy’ relationships. There is a lack of electricity in not only our bedrooms, but our lives, as a result of this nation-wide celibacy. Where has the passion gone? And why can’t we talk about it?
When it comes to death, we talk about it in hushed voices and use euphemisms to avoid directly mentioning the ‘passing’, the ‘loss’, of a human being. Death education is not something that is regarded as important for children – in her book on Helping Children Live with Death and Loss, Dinah Seibert identifies how shielding children from important life events (like death) can create unhealthy stress. As a culture, we are scared of death and not ready to have a “cultural conversation about what a healthy last chapter of life looks like” (Ira Byock, March 28th, 2008). Where has respect for the beauty, and final ending, of life gone? And why can’t we talk about it?
The social norm of avoiding discussions around sex and death should be reexamined, I think, for all of our psychological health. Tyler Tervooren, creator of Riskology.co, talks very intelligently about the challenging of social norms and the ‘reality distortion principle’ in this article. It would take time to openly discuss these taboos – talk about death is currently regarded as ‘morbid’, but it could also be beautiful, respectful, open. Talk about sex tends to happen more around negative events (e.g. Elliot Rodger), rather than encompassing the depth and complexity of this core element of our human-ness. (There is also an opposing, but pertinent, discussion going on around labeling potentially ‘triggering’ subjects in university classrooms – an issue discussed in great depth in the New Republic magazine here).
My own conversation (with myself) on these topics began when I found the perfectly-preserved woodpecker, pictured below, dead on the stone steps outside my doorway. I thought what an incredible creature he would have been in vigorous flight. Now, he is still and quiet. I gave him a respectful burial. Perhaps it was morbid to take pictures, but I thought of it as a testament to his beauty and unexpected death.
What deep truths about humanity and the world can we discover through conversations about sex and death? What are the cultural differences in our attitudes towards these subjects? Why don’t we talk about them currently? Would our lifestyles change if we did talk about them? All questions I wonder about.