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Lena Dunham and That “Flash of Mortality Awareness”

In an odd twist to our tabloid-driven obsession with “celebrity deaths,” Lena Dunham admitted her own fixation upon mortality. Although hailed as “the voice of [her] generation” and a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year, in her new book Not That Kind of a Girl, the actress, screenwriter, humorist, and feminist firebrand fesses up to a painful, unfulfilled yearning — to “work the death thing out.”lenaDunham

While Dunham’s book is being criticized for far more scandalous revelations,  it is her ruminations about death that I find most fascinating.

In an exclusive excerpt, the Guardian revealed the extent of this 20-something’s preoccupation with dying. In typical Dunham fashion, she crudely muses about hypochondria, existentialism, and anal sex, on her way to working “the death thing” out.

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments – I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because… why the hell not?

It is rather comforting to know that even the rich and famous still get that “flash of mortality awareness.” Apparently no amount of wealth or applause can completely anesthetize  us against the inevitability of our own demise. In Dunham’s case, however, the specter of death seems to do little more than produce a sort of flippant moral abandon, reminding her “to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because… why the hell not?”

Why the hell not. Indeed.

While much of celebrity culture is doing their best to NOT think about the inevitable, Dunham deserves kudos for at least contemplating the D-word. However, if you’re looking for answers, some sort of deep, philosophical or spiritual truisms  to guide you through your own existential wrestling, Lena Dunham is the wrong sage to glean from.

Recounting her first really personally confrontation with death, that of her grandmother (Gram, she calls her), Dunham writes

My head throbbed with questions. Where is Gram? Is she conscious? Is she lonely? And what does this all mean for me?

The rest of the summer was characterised by a kind of hot terror, a lurking dread that cast a pallor over everything I did. Every ice pop I ate, every movie I watched, every poem I wrote was tinged with a sense of impending loss. Not of another loved one but of my own life. It could be tomorrow. It could be 80 years from tomorrow. But it was coming for us all, and I was no exception.

So how does one resolve the “hot terror” and “lurking dread” that death imposes. In Dunham’s case, it was her father’s rather vapid philosophizing.

Finally, one day, I couldn’t stand it any more: I walked into the kitchen, laid my head on the table, and asked my father, “How are we supposed to live every day if we know we’re going to die?” He looked at me, clearly pained by the dawning of my genetically predestined morbidity. He had been the same way as a kid. A day never went by when he didn’t think about his eventual demise. He sighed, leaned back in his chair, unable to conjure a comforting answer. “You just do.”

My father can get pretty existential. “You’re born alone and you die alone” is a favourite of his that I particularly hate. Ditto “Perhaps reality is just a chip implanted in all our brains.” He has a history of staring out into nature and asking, “How do we know this is actually here?” I guess I inherited it.

Nothing like resolving life’s greatest question with the assertion that “reality is just a chip implanted in all our brains.”

It’s no wonder that Dunham concludes,

“We talk about enlightened beings, what it would mean to transcend the human plane. ‘I want to be enlightened, but it also sounds boring,’ I tell [my father]. ‘So much of what I love – gossip and furniture of different furniture brands and food and the internet – is really here, on Earth.’ Then I say something that would probably make the Buddha roll over in his grave: ‘I think I could be enlightened, but I’m not in the mood yet. I just want to work the death thing out.'”

It’s rather fascinating that someone who’s been “obsessed with death” since childhood reaches a conclusion that is so devoid of any real answer.

The Bible contains no such ambiguity or flippancy about death and the afterlife. “[P]eople are destined to die once,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27 NIV).

Death comes for us all. Even hipster celebrities. That “flash of mortality awareness” is God-given, a vital barometer in our search for Truth and Meaning. Unlike Lena Dunham’s “inherited” worldview, the Christian faith hinges upon One who “taste[d] death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9) and conquered death by rising from the grave. His authority is light years away from the crude, uninspired musings of  a rich, privileged, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood who is hoping to be “the voice of [her] generation.” And according to Him, we should definitely “work the death thing out.”

All joking aside.


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{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Gary Whittenberger November 4, 2014, 9:24 AM

    Mike, you said “The Bible contains no such ambiguity or flippancy about death and the afterlife.” A wrong answer or even a probably wrong answer, as is found in the Bible, is worse than Lena Dunham’s uncertainty about the finality of death. Lena is still a young woman, an apparently curious and reflective one, and so I am confident that she will eventually reach a firmer conviction about the finality of death. But if she does not, so what?

    You also said “That ‘flash of mortality awareness’ is God-given, a vital barometer in our search for Truth and Meaning.” I don’t think you have any good evidence that this flash is “God given.” You are just speculating. On the other hand, I think there is good evidence that this flash is a natural result of our advanced observational and cognitive capacities, especially our ability to think about the future, produced by evolution.

    • Jessica E. Thomas November 4, 2014, 9:42 AM

      “I think there is good evidence that this flash is a natural result of our advanced observational and cognitive capacities”

      If her cognitive abilities here are “advanced”, our society is in trouble. Apes are more profound than this.

      • Gary Whittenberger November 6, 2014, 1:14 PM

        You are misinterpreting our comments. Neither my comment nor Mike’s about the “flash” was intended to refer specifically to Lena, but to human persons in general. And apes do not have an understanding of death comparable to that of humans.

    • Anon November 4, 2014, 11:51 AM

      Dude, you’ve read this blog long enough to know the Christian’s starting premise. We hold the scripture as authoritative. Quit telling us the bible is wrong because you believe it to be. We get it: You’re right, we’re wrong. Enough already. Engage in some real discussion about the topic at hand.

      • Gary Whittenberger November 6, 2014, 1:16 PM

        Dude, start to examine your starting premise and engage in some real discussion about the topic at hand.

    • Christian November 5, 2014, 6:18 AM

      Your obsession with Mike and your complete inability to understand his faith would be funny if it weren’t so damned juvenile. A Christian speaking from his Christian worldview? Say it isn’t so! What did you freaking expect?

      • Gary Whittenberger November 6, 2014, 1:18 PM

        I understand Mike’s faith and disagree with it. You are just making an ad hominem attack and failing to seriously engage with my comment.

      • Gary Whittenberger November 7, 2014, 7:16 AM

        What did I freaking expect? I expected Mike and responders, like you, to engage civilly and rationally with my comments. Is that too much to expect? I don’t think so.

        • Christian November 7, 2014, 8:46 PM

          Fair enough, but you also might want to be civil and rational.

          • Gary Whittenberger November 8, 2014, 5:43 AM

            You said “…your complete inability to understand his faith would be funny if it weren’t so damned juvenile.” That is an uncivil comment. I don’t think I’ve made an uncivil comment, but if you think so, then identify it and we can discuss it.

            But why do you waste our time making uncivil comments rather than dealing directly with the issues raised by Mike in his essay?

    • Karen P. November 5, 2014, 3:46 PM

      At some point, each of us has to face our own mortality. We Christians believe what God tells us in the Bible – that if we “confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved” (Romans 10:9-10). We stand on God’s promises. Why? Because it goes against His holy nature to lie or deceive. If we are so smart and evolved, as you put it, then why after all this time don’t we know what actually happens to us when we die? Where is your evidence?

      • Gary Whittenberger November 6, 2014, 1:21 PM

        If God did exist, then he certainly would not make salvation contingent on believing some unlikely claim. It would not be God who is deceiving you, it would be the writer of Romans who is pulling the wool over your eyes.

        • Karen P. November 6, 2014, 5:42 PM

          Don’t believe the Apostle Paul? Fine. Jesus Himself said “I AM the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to tje Father except through me.” John 14:6 You think you’re smarter than God in saying you have a better plan to salvation. Again, answer my question – what is it?

          • Gary Whittenberger November 7, 2014, 7:05 AM

            No, I don’t believe what Paul said in the cited verse, and I don’t believe what Jesus said in the cited verse. If God did exist, he wouldn’t work through intermediaries, like Moses, Jesus, Paul, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, etc. He would work directly with the people! After all, he would be all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. What Paul and Jesus suggest, and what you embrace, is not compatible with the greatness of God, if he exists.

            No, if God exists, I am not smarter than God, and neither are you. God would never transfer the penalties earned by the sins of every human person to one person, i.e. Jesus, since that would contradict one of the prime moral principles — individual accountability. God would not do that, if he existed, since he would be perfectly good and moral. Get your God theory fixed!

            Your question is based on a wrong assumption. There is no salvation from the penalties of sin, if God exists, since he would penalize everyone proportionately to the number and severity of their sins, with no exceptions, including for you! Wake up!

            • Karen P. November 7, 2014, 10:03 AM

              “If God did exist, he wouldn’t work through intermediaries, like Moses, Jesus, Paul, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, etc. He would work directly with the people!

              God did -as the Great I AM -directly with Noah (starting in Genesis 6:8, covenant in Ch. 9); – directly with Abraham before, during, and after He made the covenant with him (starting in Genesis 12, covenant made Genesis 15:12-18); -directly with Moses (the Israelites were terrified of God and desired Moses to be their intermediary); -directly with the 12 apostles, and Paul on the road to Damascus, and many others. He STILL DOES work directly in each of us who are believers through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit, correcting and guiding us. How do I know this? Because I am no longer the sad wretch I used to be. This is a conscience knowing of the difference. We are ALL held accountable and will face judgement before Him. (Job 31:14, Psalm 9:7, John 12:44-50)

              “What Paul and Jesus suggest, and what you embrace, is not compatible with the greatness of God, if he exists. ”

              And you base this claim on what exactly? How do you know what God is really like? What is the yardstick that you use to determine truth? We as believers use the Scriptures as our yardstick, since God is all-knowing, and in His mercy has given us His Word. If you on the other hand are only using your “intellect” then as a mere human you yourself admit that your thinking cannot compare with God’s. So why not use the source He has given us, that shows what He is thinking?

              ” There is no salvation from the penalties of sin…”
              It sounds to me as if you have no hope. That makes me very sad for you.

              Read the Books of John and 1 John and maybe we’ll talk again. Peace to you.

              • Gary Whittenberger November 7, 2014, 10:36 AM

                I don’t agree with the basic assumptions you are making. You read these biblical stories which are thousands of years old and just automatically assume that they are true when they say that God spoke to people. The evidence for that conclusion just isn’t good enough.

                How do you know what God is really like? You don’t know! You don’t have evidence good enough to KNOW. You just believe. I have a different belief about God, if he exists, than you do. The basis of my belief is both the traditional definition of “God” and the rational deductions about the consequences of that definition. I use Reason to determine the truth. What do you use? The scriptures? Well, you must use Reason to interpret, analyze, and evaluate the scriptures. So, it all starts with Reason. You are only using your intellect.

                If God exists, there is no hope for me, you, or anyone else THAT we will escape the penalties due to us because of our sins. You are engaged in wishful thinking to think that you are so special and could escape them. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Read the books of John and 1 John CRITICALLY, and then maybe we’ll talk again.

                Wake up!

  • D.M. Dutcher November 4, 2014, 1:00 PM

    I’ve always thought this was an evidence for Christianity. The flashes of mortality are odd because none of us reality has any natural cognitive awareness that we will die. Like death is an alien thing and not a natural one, no matter even if it’s due to old age. Our default mode is a belief in immortality.

    • Gary Whittenberger November 6, 2014, 1:26 PM

      You are about half right. Young children do not have a sense of their mortality. They think that they will just go on existing. But, through observation of the death of animals and humans, they learn that they will die. So, the default belief goes from immortality to mortality. However, religion was invented largely to cater to the wish that we will not die. And so, some people (even adults) believe what they wish were true, i.e. that their mental lives, memories, personalities, and identities will continue forever.

      • Karen P. November 6, 2014, 5:45 PM

        Have you ever studied the Bible?

        • Gary Whittenberger November 7, 2014, 7:08 AM

          Yes, I have read the Bible twice and studied parts of it quite a bit.

          But, instead of focusing on me, why don’t you deal directly with the claims I’ve made? Stick to the topic, please.

          • Karen P. November 7, 2014, 10:06 AM

            Gary, Gary, Gary, it is not about religion , it is about you. God wants a personal relationship with you. What are you so afraid of? Ask God to reveal Himself to you. That’s what I am praying for you, and I ask every believer who reads this to pray for Gary. Peace to you.

            • Gary Whittenberger November 7, 2014, 10:44 AM

              Karen, Karen, Karen, it’s not about me; it’s about the theory of God. If God exists, he doesn’t want a personal relationship with me. If he did, he would have clearly presented himself to me (in front of witnesses) long ago! What are you so afraid of? That your wishful thinking will go away if you begin to think critically about your theory of God. I hope that you will change your approach. I will ask all my friends who read this to hope for you, Karen.

              If God exists, why do you fear his justice? He would penalize you to the extent of your sins. Your punishment would not be pleasant, but God wouldn’t give you more than you could handle. It sounds to me that you just want to try to escape accountability. Ain’t gonna happen, if God exists. Think about it.

  • Anon November 7, 2014, 2:28 PM

    Mike, Please ban Gary Whittenberger. Thank you.

    • Christian November 7, 2014, 8:43 PM

      Amen! This brick wall is wearing thin.

      • Gary Whittenberger November 8, 2014, 6:00 AM

        Christian, this call for bans is wearing thin. Please get back on topic and deal directly with the issues at hand!

        Mike, please remind Christian and Anon that this is an open forum where people who disagree with each other can discuss their views in a civil manner. Specifically, please tell Christian that his comment “…your complete inability to understand his faith would be funny if it weren’t so damned juvenile” is an uncivil ad hominem attack which is inappropriate on a forum like this.

    • Gary Whittenberger November 8, 2014, 5:54 AM

      Anon, you are calling for a ban of me because I post comments and questions which you don’t like and don’t agree with? That’s just another way to avoid a civil and rational discussion of the issues raised by Mike in his essay. Please deal with my comments civilly, sincerely, and directly! Please get back on topic!

      I could be mistaken, but I don’t think that Mike intends to stifle free speech on his blog, especially speech which challenges his thinking and that of other participants, but we shall see.

  • Nathan November 11, 2014, 11:56 AM

    For Mr. Whittenberger, a question that’s been percolating in my head a few days: would you permit anyone you encountered to enter your home? Or would you expect them to exercise a certain level of hygiene and conduct themselves according to certain standards?

  • Gary Whittenberger November 12, 2014, 10:29 AM

    Nathan, I think the underlying presupposition of your analogy is just plain false. Every time I have posted on this site I have behaved in a civil manner. If you think otherwise, then provide a specific quote of mine which you think was uncivil and we can discuss your opinion.

    Don’t interpret assertiveness as aggressiveness or hostility. Don’t interpret a challenge as an insult. And don’t label civility as incivility.

    Deal directly with my claims instead of focusing on me. That way we can have a good discussion of Mike’s ideas.

    • Nathan November 12, 2014, 12:12 PM

      First, please accept my apologies: I actually wasn’t attempting to accuse you of anything. The reason I posed the question I posed is because I find your assertions of how you feel a perfectly good God should operate to be very interesting. And so I’m also interested in knowing how you yourself would operate in a given instance. And so I’m curious: would you let just anyone in your house or give a ride to just anyone…or would you have certain standards people must first meet? Again, not accusing you of anything; merely curious about how you would operate.

  • Gary Whittenberger November 13, 2014, 5:48 AM

    Nathan, either your question is totally irrelevant to this conversation or you are trying to use an analogy to make a relevant point. I suspect the latter is the case. But I’ll play along.

    Of course, I would not just let anyone in my house. Would you? If a Jehovah’s Witness came to my house and wanted to discuss religious and philosophical ideas in a civil manner, yes, I would let him into my house. If a person stood outside my door yelling and waving a gun, no, I wouldn’t let him into my house. So, I would do an assessment of the behavior and the motives of the person before making a decision about letting him in.

    My answer to the question about giving a ride would fall along the same lines.

    Now, Nathan, please give your answer to the same question and tell how this is relevant to the religious and philosophical issues raised by Mike, you, and others on this blog.

  • Nathan November 13, 2014, 7:15 AM

    Thank you for your response; now, before I continue, I’m hoping I might be able to ask you one other question first: in your view, were God to exist, how would he operate? You’ve provided snippets of your view: that God would punish people individually and in direct proportion to our sins, and that he’d interact with each of us individually…but how would he evaluate who gets to spend eternity with him–if anyone at all? Again, thank you for bearing with me.

  • Gary Whittenberger November 14, 2014, 9:16 AM

    Nathan, you asked me a question and I answered it. I asked you the same question and you failed to answer it. You have a double standard.

    Your new question is “How would God evaluate who gets to spend eternity with him, if anyone at all?” In one sense, everyone gets to spend eternity with God, if he exists, since according to a common definition of God, he is omnipresent. However, in another sense, nobody gets to spend eternity with God (in a favored state or relationship, e.g. in Heaven) because that would constitute an infinite reward for a finite demonstration of moral/immoral behavior. According to the same common definition of God, he is perfectly good, moral, just, and fair. So, how would this super person who also happens to be all-knowing and all-powerful act towards human persons who lived a finite life and engaged in both moral and immoral behavior? What is the rational conclusion about this?

  • Nathan November 15, 2014, 1:15 PM

    By asserting that a perfectly good God would operate according to reason as you understand reason…how are you not also limiting God’s greatness? Throughout history, humanity has lauded actions that have no basis in reason or logic–but that do have origins in other human traits–generosity and mercy. If a perfectly good God is our source–and we possess the ability to be generous and merciful in situations where both those qualities make no “logical” sense…why should the God who created us not also be able to possess those qualities?

    • Gary Whittenberger November 16, 2014, 9:36 AM

      Nathan, when I ask you questions, you avoid them. But I don’t want to behave that way towards you, so I’ll attempt to answer your first question here: No, I am not limiting God’s greatness. If God were to exist, he would be perfectly reasonable. This would be an essential part of his greatness. If you disagree, please explain yourself.

      If God were to assign the penalties due to all persons to one person (i.e. Jesus), then that would not be perfectly good, reasonable, generous, or merciful. If you disagree, please explain yourself.

      If God were to assign any person at all to eternal torment (e.g. some person who did not believe in the atonement of Jesus), then that would also not be perfectly good, reasonable, generous, or merciful. If you disagree, please explain yourself.

      I think you are making a lot of assumptions which just aren’t reasonable or true.

      • Nathan November 21, 2014, 5:43 AM

        Why would God do these things? Because he loves us, wants us to be with him–but cannot allow anything less than perfect into heaven–else that would corrupt heaven and eternity’s perfection. Now, is love reasonable? Not the last time I checked. Love for one’s fellow soldier will lead one to risk his/her life to save that soldier. There were the 300 who stood in the gap so the rest of their countrymen could get away. You have people going into Ebola-ravaged countries right now to help people over there. Is that reasonable? Is it loving?

        The fact is, probably no one can fully speak as to why God has chosen to act the way he has. I can tell you that he made us and decided it was “very good.” That probably has something to do with it. But otherwise…I really can’t speak because God’s a little too infinite for me to completely figure out. And I’m fine with that. As a pastor once put it: would you really want to worship a God you can completely figure out? That he gave Jesus to redeem me and make me a new creation–and that I’m seeing the fruit of this transformation in my life–is plenty sufficient for me.

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