Health Care Reform, Climate Change, and the Evasion of Our Mortality

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robert D. Stolorow Founding Faculty Member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles

In my book, Trauma and Human Existence (Routledge, 2007), I offered an account of the essence of emotional trauma: In shattering the tranquilizing illusions of everyday life, trauma requires us to own up to what these illusions have been evading -- human finiteness (i.e., limitedness, vulnerability, mortality, etc.) In virtue of our finitude and the finitude of all those with whom we are deeply connected, the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present and always impends as a constant threat. In previous blogs, I have written about how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 inflicted a massive collective trauma, shattering the illusions of invincibility that had long been central to our historical identity, and how right-wing ideologues have been exploiting our dread of retraumatization ever since then.

Because authentic (non-evasively owned) existing, stripped of its sheltering illusions, is inherently potentially traumatizing, human beings typically evade owning up to their mortality -- for example, by seeing death as an event that only happens to others or to the very elderly. Philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to the mode of discourse that evades mortality and existential anxiety as "idle talk." A good example of such talk is found in the very language we use to denote life and health insurance. "Life insurance," in truth, is really death insurance. Similarly, "health insurance" is actually sickness and injury insurance -- ultimately a form of death insurance too. In a recent telecast, Keith Olbermann aptly commented that much of the right-wing rhetoric about health care reform -- focusing on such non-issues as socialism, government control, and higher taxes -- has been obscuring what health care reform is really about: our mortality! The preoccupation with political and economic details is an attempt to distract us from having to look into the impending abyss.

And, similarly, why has it taken so long for America to take seriously the threat of catastrophic climate change, which has brought us to the brink of species annihilation -- if not during our lifetime, then in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren? The idle talk that evades this threat often takes the form of metaphysical or theological sunshine: We needn't worry about catastrophic climate change because, after all, God is looking out for us. And besides, our finite this-worldly existence is just a prelude to the eternal happiness to be enjoyed in the next world.

The time for squarely facing our mortality and existential vulnerability -- and for facing them together -- is long overdue!