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Can being reminded of my death improve my life?


I’ve been lately I feel like life is passing me by, so I downloaded an app that reminds me five times a day that I’m going to die. I thought it would help me accept my annihilation and focus on what really matters, but it makes me anxious. Is there something wrong with me? Is anxiety the point? Do you think these apps can be useful?

– Annoyed to death

Dear stricken to death,

I don’t think there is anything wrong with you. Or rather, you seem to have a problem that is endemic to all of humanity, a species with an almost unlimited ability to live in denial of a single inevitability. Even explicit reminders of our demise—whether it be the death of a loved one or a telephone notification—fail to evoke the fear and shiver that deserves the abyss and instead flood our lives with vague anxiety and surrounding dread. “Death,” in the words of W. H. Auden, “is the sound of distant thunder on a walk.” This, by the way, is one of the quotes provided by WeCroak, the app I assume you’re using, which accompanies Death Reminders with nuggets of literary wisdom from Kierkegaard, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Atwood, and others.

We live in an age of slow crises, ones that unfold at a pace that makes it easy to ignore. Social Security is decreasing year by year. Glaciers are melting faster, but still ice fast. The seas are warming at a rate that the proverbial frog can boil alive. Death lurks behind all of them. Sometimes our predicament becomes real through a natural disaster or a UN climate report, but alarm bells fade to the rhythms of the news cycle. The Doomsday clock—arguably the most deliberate attempt to keep our focus on these threats—currently floats at 100 seconds to midnight, putting us about a minute and a half, in the time scale of existential dangers, from our eventual demise.

Death reminder apps are basically a doomsday clock for an individual. In fact, some of them have physical hours so that you can watch the remaining hours in real time get lost. The Death Clock, a site active since 1998, predicts your day of death, although its estimates are based on fairly raw data points — your age, BMI, and whether you’re a smoker. Several years ago a horror movie countdown I imagined an app that was capable of intuition, right up to the second moment, the time of a person’s death, with the user agreement as a deal with the devil. (The movie’s tagline: “Death? There’s an app for that.”) The movie inspired a reality app built on the same premise—minus, obviously, supernatural knowledge, but terrified enough people to be temporarily kicked out of the App Store.

WeCroak is not too obsessive. His inspirational quotes about mortality are meant to remind users to pause and take stock of what they’re doing, and it’s a kind of companion to many mindfulness apps. Its founder came up with the idea while he was in labor candy crush Addictive, and many users have noted that the app, which tends to interrupt those hours spent on Twitter or TikTok, has forced them to confront how much their lives are wasted on social media. In other words, a product belongs to that growing class of technology designed to address problems created by technology. If digital platforms remain the most credible distraction from the perverted realities of our own mortality – as the logic goes – then perhaps we can direct the same tools to break through those psychological barriers and usher us into a more enlightened rest with our imminent demise.

WeCroak, as you already know, is inspired in part by the Bhutanese people who say that happiness can be achieved by thinking about death five times a day. Bhutan has often been ranked as one of the world’s happiest countries, and WeCroak seems to trade on an occasional weirdness not uncommon in mindfulness culture, offering eastern traditions as the antidote that will finally free us from the euphoria of modernity. However, the fact that it only increased your anxiety, is not surprising to me at all. It is not easy to simply confront yourself in the face of a fact that you were too literate to ignore. (If anything, the idea that we can reverse the entire tide of Western mortality denial with a free app is more a symptom of our technological arrogance than a tonic.) The Bhutanese practice of thinking about death has grown out of a larger cultural context about not evading death. , as evidenced by the country’s elaborate funeral rites and the tradition of celebrating the 49-day mourning period. The dominant religion in Bhutan, Buddhism, teaches that transcendence does not depend on escaping from reality but on accepting the brutal truths of existence – the fact that life itself suffers.

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